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Bring Back the Science

USC College physicist Clifford Johnson steps into the popular culture spotlight to promote the sciences.

By Laurie Hartzell
September 29, 2009

Life-long lover of science and USC College professor of physics and astronomy Clifford Johnson considers it his duty to make science accessible both inside and outside of the classroom. To learn more about Professor Johnson's work in physics and astronomy, <a href="/videos/research/91/clifford-johnson/">view our video</a>. Photo credit Mira Zimet.

Life-long lover of science and USC College professor of physics and astronomy Clifford Johnson considers it his duty to make science accessible both inside and outside of the classroom. To learn more about Professor Johnson's work in physics and astronomy, view our video. Photo credit Mira Zimet.

You've seen him in the blogosphere, you've seen him on TV. He's no reality star or guitar god, but he plays with both stars and strings.

Clifford Johnson is not only a USC College professor of physics and astronomy and a string theory expert, but a public spokesman for the sciences: “What I want to do is to get science in places where people are not expecting it.”

Johnson, who has been a member of the College physics and astronomy department since 2003, spends the majority of his time researching string theory, teaching classes and working with research students. But he feels it’s also his job to educate those outside of the university setting.

“I think it’s a real duty that an academic has to communicate what we’re doing and why we’re doing it in an understandable way to members of the public,” he said.

Johnson reaches out to the public most notably on television and online. His blog Asymptotia covers everything from his research to gardening, and his YouTube channel peoplepixels features short movies that he creates with the support of the National Science Foundation and in collaboration with the College’s chemistry department.

A frequent expert on The History Channel show “The Universe,” Johnson has also acted as a consultant for and appeared in shows on The Discovery Channel, Science Channel and National Geographic. Fans of the ABC’s “Lost” will find him on the season 5 DVD extras, teaching classes on time travel at the fictional “Lost University.” He has even been a guest on several segments of SpikeTV’s “MANswers.”

“I will show up in unusual places, sometimes to the horror of my colleagues,” Johnson said. “But I think it’s important to get science out there in all of these different media and all of these different forms.”

Johnson’s goal is to demystify aspects of science by sending topics out into the mainstream culture. As a result of the public’s general lack of scientific literacy, he believes that science has been downgraded to a “scary magic” of sorts, something only available to intellectuals. And Johnson wants to change that.

“I want to see a world where, at a dinner conversation, people can talk about what they saw in a movie, at the opera or at a dance show or…some physics or biology they’ve been reading about,” he said.

Learn more about Professor Johnson's work in physics and astronomy. Video by Mira Zimet.

His sense of duty seems fueled by a life-long love of science and the desire for others to experience the sense of awe and discovery about the world that he has felt since he was a child.

When Johnson was young, he continually asked questions about the world he found himself in, which, he admitted, is a characteristic of most children.

“They do experiments, they poke things, they try and make things work, they break things, they take things apart,” he said. “At some point, I learned that you can do this for a living — be a scientist — and that excited me, because it meant that it was okay to continue asking questions.”

He decided on physics as an area of focus, not because it was suggested to him by a teacher or relative, but because he spent some time with a dictionary, “looking up every ‘-ist’ and ‘-ologist’” until he found what he was looking for: a science that underlies other sciences.

“So I thought, if I focus on being a physicist, then I don’t have to stop thinking about all those other things because they are all connected to physics,” Johnson said.

Just as he enjoyed seeing physics in all aspects of his life as a boy, Johnson also relishes the increasing role of science in all forms of media, especially popular culture.

Television shows about science or featuring scientists as main characters are becoming increasingly familiar to viewers, from “CSI,” in which forensic investigators use scientific methods to solve crimes, to “The Big Bang Theory,” whose main characters are physicists at Caltech.

In general, Johnson feels that scientists are not always portrayed positively in the entertainment industry: “They are weird people, socially awkward, vengeful, controlling, mad....”

As science-based shows become more common, Johnson hopes they begin to evolve from featuring these often stereotypical representations to characters who just happen to be scientists by profession, with no mad scientist allusions or other effects on the theme of the program.

“When that happens,” Johnson said, “I think we’ll have gotten to a point where science is back to being part of the broader culture.”

But no matter the vehicle, a little scientific knowledge does a body good, Johnson believes.

“It’s really vital in society today to get science out there, and not kind of as spinach – something that you have to have a little of because it’s good for you – but to help people re-welcome science back where it belongs.”