USC Physicist Brings Reality To Science Fiction
It’s clear that superhero films are more than just a passing fad that aren’t going anywhere. Maybe it’s because of the fantasy of it all—super powers, aliens and amazing technology tap into deep human curiosity. After all, most science fiction is rooted in reality. Clifford Johnson is a professor of physics at the USC Dornsife College of Arts, Letters and Science, who is showing the connection between science and fiction.
“It is important to me to bring science to all parts of our culture, which includes entertainment of all kinds,” said Johnson.
Originally from England, Johnson’s parents are from the Caribbean. He received his BSc (bachelor of science) in physics from Imperial College, London University in the United Kingdom. Johnson later received his PhD from Southampton University, also in the UK. Johnson has always had a curiosity of how things work so naturally science just appealed to him.
“I’ve always been interested in asking questions about how things work, and finding ways to answer them, since I was a child,” said Johnson. “So, I stayed asking questions, deciding to become a scientist.
“Later on, I learned there were different specialties of science, and physics sounded like the one that would keep me connected to as many specialties as possible.”
It was Johnson’s public lectures, writings and blogs that would catch the attention of Hollywood. It didn’t hurt that he was a fan of film and more than willing to help connect the dots between reality and sci-fi.
“I don’t just connect science to science fiction—I connect it to any storytelling, whether it be fiction or non-fiction,” said Johnson. “The most important aspect of it for me is trying to help filmmakers better show how science works, what it can and can’t do, how it fits into our lives, and help better portray scientist characters whether real or fictional.”
Most recently, Johnson helped apply his expertise to television shows such as Marvel’s “Agent Carter” (Season 2), “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” and films “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Avengers: Infinity War.” He has also worked with National Geographic’s “Genius” (Season 1- on the life and work of Einstein), NBC’s “Timeless,” and books like Blake Crouch’s “Dark Matters.”
“Sometimes working with a real scientist can help produce much more interesting storytelling than if writers are just making stuff up,” said Johnson. “It’s more about helping storytellers build a world that’s more internally consistent, or at least has a consistent set of rules that they can use as a setting for their story.
“A scientist can help use real science as an inspiration for that world-building, even if that world is fictional.”
Comic-Con International in San Diego, CA is the place where these worlds of science, fantasy, fiction and entertainment come together every year. Johnson was recently at the 2018 Comic-Con, where he was on a panel entitled “The Power of Non-Fiction Graphic Novels” with a group of other non-fiction graphic novel authors. He was also there to sign copies of his own graphic novel “The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe.”
“This is a non-fiction book where science is the starring character,” said Johnson. “I wanted to invite people into the world of science and help them realize that they belong there and can contribute.
“The reader eavesdrops on a series of conversations about science (on various topics, from cooking all the way to black holes and the multiverse!) between ordinary people out there in the world, in cafes, museums, trains, etc.”
At Comic-Con, Johnson also contributed to the “Science Speed Dating” event organized by the Science and Entertainment Exchange in collaboration with Skybound, which was livecast on twitch.tv from the Skybound lounge to about 6000 viewers.
“Six scientists in very different disciplines talked about an exciting area of their field for about 4 minutes each, with some questions to follow up from the host, screenwriter Eric Heisserer,” said Johnson.
“That was a lot of fun too!”
As far as comic books go, Johnson has many favorites across many genres and styles.
“Some comics, artists and writers whose work I’ve enjoyed immensely over the years include David Mazzucchelli, Sonny Liew, Jillian and Mariko Tamaki, Frank Miller, Posy Simmonds, Neil Gaiman, Michael Zulli, John Jennings, Nate Powell, Tom King, Sara Varon, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, and many more,” said Johnson.
“With those, you’re seeing strong compelling characters and stories deeply expressive of the human condition, combined and enhanced with stunning expressive art.”
Johnson had a good turnout at Comic-Con and is working on more projects. He looks forward to working on more projects that will continue to keep science in the forefront and inspiring interests in the field.
“People have really loved The Dialogues, and that’s been good to hear, as I poured a lot of myself into making it, including taking a lot of time (over years) to teach myself to draw for it,” said Johnson. “I might work on a second volume of conversations, and I’ve also had some ideas about some other big projects.”
“The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe,” is available for purchase.