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A Quantum Leap into the Blogosphere

Clifford Johnson gives readers a look into the daily life of a physicist with his blog, Asymptotia.

Professor of physics and astronomy, and leading expert on superstring theory Clifford Johnson. Photo credit Philip Channing.
Professor of physics and astronomy, and leading expert on superstring theory Clifford Johnson. Photo credit Philip Channing.

First, the highly popular Asymptotia is not a science blog.

It's a blog that happens to be written by a scientist.

Clifford Johnson, professor of physics and astronomy in USC College, blogs about his life and vast interests. He may blog about his daily routine of taking the subway and bus to work. Or about the compost in his vegetable garden, his folding bicycle or trumpet playing. He may post a funny video spoofing The Matrix as a silent film.

He may even blog about Halloween, complete with a chilling photo of himself wearing vampire fangs.

“What I hope people get from my blog is a realization that scientists are just ordinary people,” Johnson said. “We’re not special people. We’re just people doing a special thing. It’s an issue of making science accessible by first making the practitioners accessible.”

This is not to say that some of his posts don’t discuss science. Remember, this is a man at the forefront of the international effort to understand and describe the universe’s origin, past, present and future.

When Johnson goes to work, he may teach students why the sky is blue and why the blueness has a particular pattern. So he may return home, blog about it and include a computation demonstrating in concrete numbers why the sky is blue.

“I went outside to enjoy the beautiful autumn day and the beauty there is in seeing an equation writ large in the sky,” Johnson wrote in one posting that included photos he took of the sky.

“At times like this,” he blogged, “one remembers why it is that it is hard not to just love physics!”


USC College Professor of Physics and Astronomy Clifford Johnson provides a glimpse into his research on string theory. Video by Mira Zimet.

Johnson believes science should play a bigger role in American culture.

“When people talk about culture, they don’t normally list science with music, dancing and art,” he said. “But it is part of our culture. So I’m just trying to put science back where it belongs.”

He blames part of the problem on mainstream media’s “ghettoization of both science and scientists.”

“They’re put in this corner of being special, somewhat weird people doing a thing ‘I never understood at school,’ ” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of fear and suspicion associated with that.”

He laments that society has reached a point where it’s OK for people to admit they never understood science.

“People giggle when they say this as though it’s funny,” he said. “If someone claims, ‘Oh, I never got the whole reading thing at school,’ they wouldn’t be proud of that. Basically it’s the same thing. Literacy about how the world works is as fundamental as reading.”

Asymptotia — Johnson thoroughly explains the word pronounced as-simp-toe-sha on his blog — is a way to put a human face on science while breaking stereotypes.

“A typical scientist is still regarded in terms of the numbers as being a white male,” said the London-born Johnson, who was raised for 10 years on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. “Children of color are seldom told they can be scientists. So another aspect of all of this is to let them see that all kinds of people can be scientists.”

The blog has additional value. He often hears from prospective students and faculty who say the blog teaches them about USC and life in L.A. But Johnson, a blogger for five years, has noticed a disturbing trend. In the wake of Facebook and Twitter, readers are not as eager as they once were to engage in substantial dialogue.

“Conversations have been reduced to sound bites,” he said. “I’m happy that I have no intention to change the blog to keep up with all that stuff. There should be at least a few places where you can go to slow down, just be quiet, sit and reflect.”


Read more articles from USC College Magazine's Fall 2009/Winter 2010 issue