Nestled among science labs on the University of Southern California’s tree-filled Los Angeles campus, Dr. Clifford Johnson’s faculty office immediately reveals itself as a temple devoted to the intersection of science, art, and creativity. It’s the ideal workspace for the disarmingly charismatic, ultra-erudite physics professor who’s become one of Hollywood’s secret weapons when it comes to putting actual science into science fiction.
Large whiteboards scribbled over graffiti-style with complex physics equations crowd the walls. They vie for dominance with kaleidoscopic collages resembling blown-up comic panels. They’re artworks for a science-driven graphic book Dr. Johnson authored and illustrated – along with a work-in-progress visual short story he’s been commissioned to deliver for Twelve Tomorrows (one of the most prestigious annual science-fiction anthologies, published by MIT Press). Meanwhile, a series of Picasso reproductions hanging on the space’s southernmost wall cause Dr. Johnson to expound spontaneously on the links between the Cubist art movement and scientific inquiry.
“It wasn’t accidental,” he notes. “A number of artists were playing with the idea of other dimensions, and scientists were exploring that, too.”
Dr. Johnson also has a number of surprising dimensions – embodying different alter egos like the superhero characters in the movies he consults on. As a physicist, Dr. Johnson stands among the most distinguished in his field. He’s received many honors for his groundbreaking work in string theory, particle physics, and quantum gravity – or as he terms it, “just trying to figure out why our universe behaves as it does.” These include the National Science Foundation’s Career Award, in 1997, and the Institute of Physics’ Maxwell Medal and Prize in 2005. That same year, the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education honored him as the most cited black professor in mathematics and related fields.
On a parallel track, Dr. Johnson has become highly respected among blue-chip filmmakers. Dr. Johnson’s known for consulting on everything from iconic Marvel franchises like The Avengers and TV shows like Agent Carter to highly anticipated reboots of Star Trek, The Black Hole, and the latest in Marvel’s Thor saga. As well, he was an advisor for the National Geographic show Genius, aiding its dramatized take on the life of Albert Einstein. That’s all thanks to his ability to infuse big budget space epics and superhero-driven blockbusters with authentic, compelling scientific insights and an unexpectedly savvy narrative sense.
Dr. Johnson certainly avoids easy categorization. Bespectacled, dressed in t-shirt and sneakers, a Brompton fold-up bike stuck in the corner next to a drafting table, he exudes the casual air of a scientist in his element. At the same time, a Londoner by way of the West Indies, he speaks with a startlingly posh Downton Abbey-esque accent. Wryly self-deprecating, Dr. Johnson pokes fun at his fish-out-of water Brit status – noting how the cup of coffee he’s holding reveals a sacrilegious break with the tea of his U.K. homeland. “Oh, dear!,” he exclaims. “I’ve gone native!”
He soft-pedals his obvious intellect around us mere mortals with grace and humor – but Dr. Johnson can’t hide his infectious enthusiasm for bringing science to a wider public. It’s clear why he’s become a familiar face on networks like PBS, The Discovery Channel and The History Channel – and why he has become a key ambassador to creatives, sometimes via the Science & Entertainment Exchange, an outreach initiative founded by the National Academies of Science.
In a fascinating, wide-ranging conversation with CreativeFuture’s Matt Diehl, Dr. Johnson describes how and why he combines his passion for storytelling with a calling to move science and scientists fully into the mainstream.
Matt Diehl: Where did you grow up?
Dr. Clifford Johnson: I was born in England in 1968. When I was four, we moved to Montserrat, where my father’s family is from. Montserrat’s an interesting place. On the one hand, it was this isolated island paradise – and this was before the internet. On the other, there were major reminders of the outside world. For example, [Beatles producer] George Martin built recording studios there, so a lot of big music stars were regular visitors, and would be seen around town. I still remember that time when The Police shot part of a music video one day. It turned out to be for “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic.” I remember my brother and lots of our friends were in it, jumping around the back of a truck, but I totally missed this of course. My brother came home and told me about it later!
MD: Were you always into comics?
CJ: Since I was young, I’d read lots of comics, yes. So I knew the terrain well before being asked to consult on Marvel movies.
MD: What were your favorites?
CJ: Mostly American comics. That’s just what we’d get in the Caribbean. There was that whole business of just one store on the island with a little stand with a few comics on it, and they’d get the latest X-Men or whatever that you’d been waiting for… And you had to be quick before someone else got it! If you missed it you just had to live with that gap in your knowledge about what happened in the series – unless you were lucky to find who did get it, and maybe do a trade with them later on.
MD: The internet’s largely replaced this kind of socio-cultural connection.
CJ: I miss all that.
MD: As a comics-obsessed kid myself, I’d wonder what was “real” science and what was fantasy when reading them.
CJ: Exactly. We probably read the same comics!
MD: So how’d you end up where you are today?
CJ: I’m a perpetual outsider, always moving, in one way or another. I returned to England when I was 14. After attending university in London, I did graduate work in physics at the University of Southampton. After stops at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, UC Santa Barbara’s Institute for Theoretical Physics, and various other places, I ended up at USC. Let’s say they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse! [laughs] Seriously though, USC is a great place for research in fundamental science, as is the L.A. area at large, so it was a great place to come to. I’ve since married an American [actor/filmmaker Amy French] and become very settled here. I’ve been in the USA for almost half my life now!
MD: Time flies. Did you always want to be a scientist?
CJ: Yes, since well before I was 10. But I’ve always done projects that get me dabbling in all kinds of things. I resist being narrowly defined by a standard career path, I suppose. I never liked having to choose among all the things I find interesting. And I’ve always been interested in stories.
MD: So you’re a physicist… But what you really want to do is direct!
CJ: That’s a whole other story! [laughs] I’ve actually directed short films exploring ways to get people interested in science – illustrated lectures, really – and also a short documentary about a science center. But I’ve become more interested in talking about science through character and narrative.
MD: You’ve said you interpret physics as narrative.
CJ: I think most physicists do, even if they don’t realize it. What makes good stories is the same in science. There’s timing, the order of things, cause and effect, finding motivation for why something came to be. Experiments are mystery stories, really. We don’t know what we’ll find, so excitement grows as they unfold.
MD: There’s a beginning, middle, and end.
CJ: Often a very long middle, and endings are usually “To be continued…”
MD: That’s frequently the case in great storytelling, too.
CJ: We’re just wired to think in terms of narrative. People have different views of what stories are about, though.
MD: Does introducing actual science into storytelling improve it?
CJ: More often than not. It’s a good idea to get scientists involved early. Let’s say you’re trying to write a story with some science content in it. If a scientist learns what you’re trying to do with your story before you’ve begun writing it, they might be able to tell you about some science – or aspects of scientist characters – that can help your story goals. It can’t help but open up possibilities that hadn’t previously been considered. You never know where it’ll go when we all brainstorm together. It’s best when filmmakers get scientists involved early enough to toss ideas around while they’re still being distilled – before they’ve finished writing the scripts.
We’re likely to give them news from the front, as it were. Scientific research evolves constantly, so we bring these fresh ideas to the development process. Science concepts enhance story beats, which excites filmmakers creatively. Numerous times, I’ve had the pleasure of saying, “I see what you’re doing there with that bit of science, but it reminds me of something else….” And I go on to unpack a bit of science that may well be something they’d not come to me about in the first place. I’ve had that lead to some really great stuff as a result. This seldom happens when someone comes to me late in the process with a finished script that they just want me to fact-check.
MD: What’s been a collaboration you consider successful?
CJ: By far the two most successful are my work on National Geographic’s first season of Genius and on season two of Marvel’s Agent Carter. The Agent Carter character belongs to the Strategic Science Reserve, a precursor in the Marvel Universe to S.H.I.E.L.D. She investigates crimes and strange phenomena that have a science component. The show takes place during the Cold War, so Agent Carter discovers various phenomena for the first time that later become Marvel Universe touchstones.
MD: At what point were you brought in?
CJ: Early, during the writing process. I contributed everything from helping make characters believable as scientists to filling chalkboards in the background with relevant equations. With Tara Butters and Michelle Fazekas, the showrunners of Agent Carter, we’d brainstorm with the rest of the team in the writer’s room about how the show’s universe could work while serving the story.
One element from the Marvel Universe in Agent Carter is the Darkforce – a powerful form of matter-energy, which – after some brainstorming about how real scientists usually go about playfully naming things – they ended up calling “Zero Matter,” which is a great name. I helped to give the Darkforce life by finding parallels to phenomena it reminded me of from real physics. In the show, Zero Matter is kept in a kind of high-tech cage. By building on properties I suggested it should have, inspired by real physics, I could then figure out how it would be contained in that cage – using analogs of magnetic confinement that you would use in the real world. So I made sketches of my versions of the containment machines for Zero Matter, which they even built, based on my designs. It gave story elements a basis that corresponds to authentic scientific ideas.
MD: How do you gauge your success?
CJ: People don’t always realize science is exciting. To reach them, you tell stories in other media through helping filmmakers, novellists, playwrights, and so on. I’m not sneaking spinach into your milkshake. Instead, I put science where you weren’t looking for it, and give you new flavors you weren’t expecting. You didn’t know how awesome they were. Now, perhaps, you’ll explore them – maybe even seek them out.
MD: You also hope to redefine how scientists are depicted.
CJ: Yes. Everybody loves Doc from Back to the Future. In a lot of people’s minds, though, he represents what a real scientist is! These clichés don’t encourage people to engage with science. Instead, they stop them from realizing that they – or their kids, or their friends – could become scientists, too. We need a broader palette. The more kinds of people and perspectives that engage with science, the better in terms of what we may discover. Things are changing, and we’re beginning to see more variety of scientists on screen, but our work is far from done.
MD: From Star Wars to Suicide Squad, speculative fiction must maintain suspension of disbelief. But if the rules governing a story’s world feel fake, viewers get pulled out of it.
CJ: Exactly! It’s offensive. You feel insulted – cheated, even: “I’ve given you two hours to engage me with this universe, and you’ve wasted my time!”
It’s not really about getting specific science facts correct at all. Or at least, that’s a small component of the work. I’m not there as a scold, checking facts and “grading” a film. I’m more helpful in figuring out the overall consistency of the film’s universe, sometimes basing it in some kind of recognizable phenomena to give it a sense of reality. But everything doesn’t have to be all “real” science. Most importantly, a narrative must convincingly set up the rules of its universe, and see them through. That universe must behave consistently right until the titles roll at the end – unless there’s a good dramaturgical reason to do otherwise.
MD: What did you address in Genius’ telling of Einstein’s story?
CJ: Oh, so many things! It ranged from teaching the filmmakers about Einstein’s scientific work to helping them choose what aspects should be included to make the scripts historically accurate and the dialogue believable, all while helping move the story along. They were keen to find ways to have the science reflect what was going on in Einstein’s personal life as well, and I was delighted to help them do that. The behavior of the scientist characters has to be right, too.
MD: In Genius, Einstein constantly discusses complex topics with anyone who’ll listen – not just scientist colleagues.
CJ: As we all do! Something I said actually made it into the script: You’re a scientist all the time. You “never turn it off”. You can’t stop figuring out how our world works. And we’re affected by the conversations about these engaging problems. New seeds are always planted if you stay open.
MD: Does wondering as a kid how, say, Thor’s hammer flies from a scientific perspective lead people to science careers?
CJ: I wanted to be a scientist before I got into comics, but I’m sure it does. For kids interested in science, seeing scientist protagonists doing experiments to make cool stuff, or using the scientific method to solve a problem – that only helps.
MD: How did you start advising storytellers?
CJ: I’d done lots of blogging and TV appearances about science and the representation of scientists in society and media. From that, I became known as someone who makes such things accessible. Eventually word just got around, I suppose. I did some science stuff for the BBC in the U.K., too.
MD: You do have a perfectly sonorous BBC voice.
CJ: Really? Thank you – although I’m probably more Catherine Keener than normal today due to a sore throat!
MD: How’d you become Marvel’s go-to science expert?
CJ: I don’t think I’d call myself that. There are lots of us who help on Marvel films. Originally, the Science and Entertainment Exchange connected me with Marvel, who’s proven particularly smart dealing with the science in their different projects. Their various directors and producers have learned that you can get stronger stories that way, and on all kinds of science, not just the stuff in my field of physics. So that’s why I wouldn’t go as far as to say I’m the Marvel science guy. They go to others to learn things about neuroscience, biophysics, or toxicology. It is a relatively small group of us on this mission, though. We run into each other sometimes; we even end up on the same movies. We usually discover that after the fact because routinely we all refrain from talking about working on a project until it is released! [laughs]
MD: How does one procure your services?
CJ: Many times people just get in touch with me directly. Other times, and increasingly often, a filmmaker contacts The Science & Entertainment Exchange about a project they’re working on: “We’re doing this film, and we need help on black holes…” But mostly, going back to times well before the Exchange, people found me through word of mouth. Since 2004 or so, I’ve had innumerable advisory coffees, lunches, dinners, and meetings on everything from USC student films to Hollywood blockbusters.
MD: What was your first cinematic collaboration?
CJ: Well, in terms of something you’ve maybe seen? Working on DVD extras for Lost, maybe? Honestly, I couldn’t tell you. I couldn’t count them. For any of us who do this sort of thing, we do waaaay more stuff than anyone hears about. I’ve spent countless hours working on spec. Most times you work with screenwriters, and you have to remember that most things, no matter how good, never get made. Also, even if a screenplay I’ve worked on does get picked up, it might go through several rewrites through production. Some of the first stuff to go is going to be the science content, I’m sorry to say, so a lot of my help ends up lost. But I remain hopeful that the experience of working with a scientist to try to translate an idea in to a piece of drama, that stays with those screenwriters through their careers. And one day they put that stuff into a film that does get made.
MD: Does your name ever appear in the credits?
CJ: Most of the time, no. Often, I’ll get a call, answer questions, and forget about it. Maybe I’ll look at a script. But sometimes, a producer says, “This is exciting! Come meet the writers.” Then we have the real conversations. I try to go the extra mile: I’ll do a deeper dive and give far more complete notes than people expect. I want them to experience how helpful I can be, because the mission is so important. I hope it means they’ll call me or some other scientist again. But even then, most times I have nothing material to show for it – not even my name in tiny print on screen. That’s partly as a result of the fact that nobody in the industry really understands the role of a science advisor, and where we fit in the scheme of things, even when the entire story could be about science and scientists. There’s no line item called “science advisor” on a line producer’s spreadsheet. So unless you make a nuisance of yourself, you often get forgotten.
MD: What’s coming up that you’ve been involved with?
CJ: Recently, I’ve helped Star Trek: Discovery on lots of things. The producers actually brought in many scientists from various fields. We brainstormed about how various things from Star Trek’s heritage might connect to things in current science and technology, like the original show used to do in the ‘60s. They really wanted to shake things up and recapture the spirit of early Star Trek. On the original show, they really tried to touch on what was coming next in science and technology – and they’re doing the same thing with Discovery. So you’ll see a lot of fun new science buzzwords and hints of ideas in this new Star Trek that might give it an exciting current feel.
MD: What proved most exciting about this collaboration?
CJ: It’s Star Trek! It’s inspired entire generations. Some of those people go on to become scientists, or at least gain a lasting love of science, so it’s nice to contribute to that legacy. Even though their way of working with scientists isn’t my ideal model of how that can work – understandably, they don’t tell you about the story, or show scripts, because they’re being very protective of their secrets – I was happy to work with them since the show can be so influential on the imaginations of people who watch it.
MD: Not to further stereotypes – but I’ve never met a scientist who wasn’t a Trekkie.
CJ: Right, right!
MD: What else is on your plate?
CJ: I’m working with Emily Carmichael, the writer for a huge Disney project coming up, the remake of The Black Hole. We’ve been talking since the early writing stages, so lots of stuff from those conversations could well end up on screen. She sometimes sends me scenes she’s written based on things I’ve suggested. I comment and throw in suggestions for dialogue, or how to tackle some physics scenario, and some of that gets built in, one hopes. The key thing here is that we talked a lot about what she was trying to achieve in her story, and I told her a lot of fun physics she could draw from to build her universe. As a skilled writer, her job is to figure out how to tell a great story using pieces of what I’ve given her, and I’m sure she will. I’ve also helped a bit on two upcoming Marvel films – Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Infinity War. They have a lot of fun science in them. For Infinity War, they talked to a bunch of us, so I have no idea what they used. For Thor, however, I did a close read of their script at a late stage and gave them lots of suggestions, including talking with the director, Taika Waititi, and his VFX people about how various things could work and look. I’m curious to see what they used! I’m also scheduled to talk with the directors and their team about working on Marvel’s Captain Marvel, so that should be interesting.
MD: Have you noticed any scientific themes emerging?
CJ: In the Marvel stuff? It’s mostly about aspects of space and time I get asked about for when I work for them, and various astrophysical phenomena. How characters move around in interesting, creative ways to serve the story. With Thor, and increasingly with The Avengers, now the big threat is from space, so characters often encounter a number of things of an astrophysical or even cosmological nature. I helped the filmmakers figure out the science behind elements of such things, and how it might help with story – or just make stuff look cooler. The Marvel Universe is big, and very connected at the same time, and so to get anywhere you’re going to have to use things like the Rainbow Bridge used by Thor’s people, the Asgardians, or other technologies. Can one come up with some governing principles for how those all work, to use as basis for story? Those are the things one can end up thinking about a lot. I try to figure out how those things might look and work. I don’t deal in spoilers, so I won’t go into detail. But it’s now known from the trailers now that Thor and Hulk connect on a distant planet where Hulk has become a gladiator. This planet is interesting in terms of the physics going on near it. I gave them a bunch of ideas for that, but I don’t know what they specifically used.
MD: Has anything come from advising storytellers that’s sparked ideas in your scientific pursuits?
CJ: Good question! On Marvel or other science-fiction projects, it’s all about trying to find plausible ways by which you can have these self-contained environments with their own rules, like where people with extraordinary powers fight evil. Those abilities don’t make much sense in the physics of our world – but with a bit of effort and backstory, you can manufacture concepts that help.
What happens in the kind of physics I do is somewhat analogous. In trying to figure out this real universe, we imagine the physical laws of different universes in our equations and simulations – the idea being that while there may be different kinds of universes out there, they might share some features with ours. Or you magnify or exaggerate a physical effect in order to better understand its role. My consulting work often takes precisely the same approach. You can help create worlds that are just like our world in many ways – but when you change certain key elements…
MD: Then the other elements of the physics in play respond accordingly.
CJ: Correct. If you try to keep the rules of that world consistent, it frees up new angles. To get to the point of your question, we think about alternative physics scenarios in order to understand how the physics of our universe works. Why are things the way they are in our universe? To find out, you actually have to think about how they actually might be different in others. Playing with other kinds of universes help us understand that.
MD: So you build a house of cards representing an alternate scenario, and then see where it behaves differently and similarly.
CJ: That’s exactly the process. Take gravity – a fundamental force, yet very different from other such forces in ways we don’t understand. For one, gravity’s so much weaker than the other forces of nature. We actually don’t understand why that it is. Therefore, we imagine other universes where gravity is stronger. And then you play with fictional scenarios where characters exploit that.
MD: Like on Superman’s home planet of Krypton.
CJ: Sure. In ways, the things I end up consulting on sometimes relate to my work involving string theory and various other approaches of quantum gravity. These are attempts to understand, for example, how gravity works with quantum physics. We’re still trying to figure it out, and it’s been a long quest. [sighs] That leads to questions about other things we take for granted – like that our universe may not be unique, or it doesn’t have the space and time dimensions we believe it has. I’m one of the people who works on those things for real, in my research.
MD: While also providing a bridge between movie magic and that of science.
CJ: Magic may not be the best word. There’s certainly amazing, weird, and wonderful stuff in real science – you don’t need to make stuff up. The universe proves way more rich, diverse, and weird than we can ever dream of. Much of my job is to just to help writers realize that it’s more interesting to delve into the science behind interesting scenarios than to just make something up.
MD: Ultimately, what’s your end goal?
CJ: Getting more science out into the culture. Science is something that we should all participate in. It shouldn’t be left just to the scientists. It’s part of our culture that we should all feel free to engage in, just like art, or music, or poetry, or politics. Politics is relevant here too. A key issue is whether we have a truly democratic society if our citizens fear the subject matter that governs much of their lives. Science is everywhere in politics – from energy and climate science to the quality of the water we drink, healthcare, and more. So the more I can get people comfortable with science and scientists, the more likely they are to feel engaged with science in their lives, and not leave it to a few people in suits to decide things for them. Movies are our most powerful means to communicate ideas and stories. Why wouldn’t we at least try to get some science in there and have fun with it? It’s a great way to enhance storytelling, but there’s a broader mission.
MD: What are some films that successfully achieve this balance?
CJ: Recent ones? The Martian was so great in showing so many different kinds of scientists onscreen. There were some stereotypes, sure, but everything was so well-balanced by showing so many different types of scientist and engineers: Matt Damon’s regular guy kind of scientist, Donald Glover’s uber-geeky guy at JPL , the scientist-engineer-ship commander played by Jessica Chastain, and so forth. The film also showcased the collaborative aspect of science, and the fun, thinking on your feet, getting stuff wrong part – all things you normally don’t often see in movies! Arrival I loved as a hard science-fiction alien encounter film. It was refreshing because the physics and mathematics stayed in the background. It was more about language, linguistics, memory, and human connection: that was all upfront, which was good because those are aspects of science, too, that aren’t shown enough. And I thought Gravity did a great job exciting people about space travel. Scientists panned it for what it got wrong, but it deserves a pass for the things they fudged because it got so many things right, and inspired so many people, including other filmmakers.
MD: You can’t teach people everything in a two-hour movie.
CJ: Correct. Science in movies should be a tasting menu, an amuse-bouche. The real goal is to get people so turned on by the ideas, they start Googling before they even leave the theater. Then they might find out more… And maybe go read my latest book! [laughs]
MD: What’s it about?
CJ: It’s a bit of a taster, too. It’s a graphic-novel style book called The Dialogues: Conversations About the Nature of the Universe. You’re not going to get a full physics lesson from the stories – but you’ll taste ideas you might want to explore further.
MD: Does the success of science-driven films like Hidden Figures suggest the subject has become more accepted?
CJ: Gatekeepers are just reluctant to take risks. Decades ago, I’d hear, “No one will understand what they’re talking about!” To which I’d respond, “Do you understand what they’re talking about on ER or Grey’s Anatomy?” It doesn’t matter. If the storytelling works, you can blend in massive amounts of complex stuff. If it’s authentic, people will watch it.
With National Geographic’s Genius, it was great seeing the huge quantities of science I’d helped get onscreen on a serious prime-time show. But I want to see a full spectrum of products with high science content, from high-concept drama to comedy and everything in between. I’m still waiting for what I call the “career show.” We’ve got doctor shows, cop shows, procedurals… Why not a scientist series? There’s the same kind of drama as in, say, ER – but the characters are scientists. A lab’s got potentially as much backstabbing, professional jealousy, and horrible things going wrong as an emergency room!
MD: Write it yourself.
CJ: Yeah. Maybe one day! Or I should collaborate with a real writer and pitch it.
MD: [points to drawings on wall] What are these?
CJ: They’re panels from my book, The Dialogues. In it, the reader eavesdrops on various conversations about science. There’s nothing out there like it, so it will be interesting and exciting to see how people get into it. It’s got real science, but it comes out of the mouths of fictional characters.
MD: Sounds like something you might have experience with…
CJ: Just a tad, yeah!