Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Book Review: “The Dialogues” by Clifford Johnson

Clifford Johnson is a veteran of the science blogosphere, a long-term survivor, around already when I began blogging and one of the few still at it today. He is professor at the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Southern California (in LA).

I had the pleasure of meeting Clifford in 2007. Who’d have thought back then that 10 years later we would both be in the midst of publishing a popular science book?

Clifford’s book was published by MIT Press just two months ago. It’s titled The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe and it’s not just a book, it’s a graphic novel! Yes, that’s right. Clifford doesn’t only write, he also draws.

His book is a collection of short stories which are mostly physics-themed, but also touch on overarching questions like how does science work or what’s the purpose of basic research to begin with. I would characterize these stories as conversation starters. They are supposed to make you wonder.

But just because it contains a lot of pictures doesn’t mean The Dialogues is a shallow book. In contrast, a huge amount of physics is packed into it, from electrodynamics to the multiverse, the cosmological constant, a theory of everything and to gravitational waves. The reader also finds references for further reading in case they wish to learn more.

I found the drawings were put to good use and often add to the explanation. The Dialogues is also, I must add, a big book. With more than 200 illustrated pages, it seems to me that offering it for less than $30 is a real bargain!

I would recommend this book to everyone who has an interest in the foundations of physics. Even if you don’t read it, it will still look good on your coffee table ;)

Win a copy!

I bought the book when it appeared, but later received a free review copy. Now I have two and I am giving one away for free!

The book will go to the first person who submits a comment to this blogpost (not elsewhere) listing 10 songs that use physics-themed phrases in the lyrics (not just in the title). Overly general words (such as “moon” or “light”) or words that are non-physics terms which just happen to have a technical meaning (such as “force” or “power”) don’t count.

The time-stamp of your comment will decide who was first, so please do not send your list to me per email. Also, please only make a submission if you are willing to provide me with a mailing address.

Good luck!

The book is gone.


  1. Sabine: How about these:

    Kelly Clarkson, “Einstein” (2011)
    The Three O’Clock, “Stupid Einstein” (1983)
    Beat Box Boys, “Einstein” (1984)
    Tech N9ne, “Einstein” (2001)
    Einstein, “Are We Ready To Party” (1990)
    Randy Newman, “Sigmund Freud’s Impersonation of Albert Einstein in America” (1977)
    Mission of Burma, “Einstein’s Day” (1982)
    Robert Smith, “Jupiter Crash (1994)
    Nick Cave, “Higgs Boson Blues,” (2012)
    Sabine Hossenfelder, “Catching Light,” (2017)

  2. 1. The Flaming Lips - What is the Light?
    2. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Higgs Boson Blues
    3. They Might Be Giants - I am a Paleontologist
    4. Coldplya - The Scientist
    5. Cracker - Show Me How This Thing Works
    6. Dandy Warhols - Scientist
    7. Fountains of Wayne - Supercollider
    8. U2 - Ultraviolet (Light My Way)
    9. Coldplay - Speed of Sound
    10. Thomas Dolby - She Blinded Me with Science

  3. 1. Hey, Maldacena!
    2. You are the Universe - Army of Lovers
    3. Lou Reed - Fly into the Sun
    4. Strange Charm - Hank Green
    5. Quark, Strangeness and Charm - Hawkwind
    6. Mara'akate - Wolfenstein 3D
    7. The Ernies - Here and Now
    8. Dr. Octagon - No awareness
    9. The antibody politic - Skyclad
    10. Quantum World - John Boswell

  4. Science Is Real by They Might Be Giants
    The Elements (1959)Tom Lehrer
    Why Does the Sun Shine (1993)They Might Be Giants
    Make a Circuit With Me" by The Polecats
    Why Does the Sun Shine They Might Be Giants
    A Glorious Dawn (2009) John D. Boswell with Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking
    Stuck To You (1999) Josh Ritter
    History of Everything Barenaked Ladies
    The Stranglers - Genetix
    Guided By Voices - I Am A Scientist
    Nine Mineral Emblems- Kew. Rhon
    FINDING HIGGS' BOSON FRANK ZAPPA -- (instrumental, but ...)

  5. This looks so cool! Thanks for introducing me to another great blog.

    1) "The Elements" - Tom Lehrer
    2) "Strange Charm" - Hank Green
    3) "Every Major's Terrible" - lyrics by Randall Munroe, performed here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=seGpYa8UO0E) by the Simon Fraser University Choir to the tune of Modern Major General
    4) Theme from "Big Bang Theory" - Barenaked Ladies
    5) "Not Just Marie Curie" - my good friend Matthew Jordan, performed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nxtWO-HjzdY
    6) "Jupiter Crash" - The Cure, inspired by the Shoemaker-Levy impact
    7) "NaCl" - Kate and Anna McGarrigle (I'm so glad you put up this contest and I found this song because of it!)
    8) "Hot Rocks" - Valdy; the lyrics aren't really technical, but this is the best song I know about the storage of radioactive waste
    9) "Roscoe H Spellgood/Speed Equals Distance Over Time" - apparently a couple of guys called Adam and Joe, video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=17&v=Tc5reqf6lNQ
    10) "Emily" - Joanna Newsom, a hauntingly beautiful letter to her sister, an astrophysicist

    And, as a bonus, another nuclear risk ballad:

    11) "The Temptation of Adam" - Josh Ritter

  6. Oh wow, you are awesome. This gives me a month's worth of new songs to check out!

    Leibniz, you were first - the book is yours! Please send a shipping address by email to hossi[at]fias.uni-frankfurt.de

    Congratulations and thanks everyone :o)

  7. I don't think it worked the first time. Second try:
    "Nine Mineral Emblems" Kew.Rhon.
    "A Glorious Dawn" John D. Boswell with Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking
    "The Elements" Tom Lehrer
    “Stuck To You,” Josh Ritter
    "Why Does the Sun Shine" They Might Be Giants
    "Galaxy Song" Monty Python
    "She Blinded Me with Science" Thomas Dolby
    “Einstein A Go Go” Landscape

  8. "how does science work" Popper-free Borromean foundations (arXiv:1801.02176) rigorously generate sterile observations. Noether's theorems? Tap dancing (arXiv:1710.01791).

    Baryogenesis, Tully-Fisher, Chern-Simons repair of Einstein-Hilbert action are vacuum chiral anisotropy toward massed hadrons. Некультурный! 1) Prolate top small rigid molecules whose mirror-images (opposite shoes) are maximally chiral divergent. 2) Large dipole moment or net charge; stable against rearrangement, reaction, fragmentation during launch, processing, detection. 3) Volatize, vacuum supersonic expand to ~1 kelvin, chirped-pulse FT microwave spectrometer. 4) Rotational spectra.

    If the opposite shoes’ spectra do not exactly superpose identical, vacuum is a measured trace left foot healing physics. Counterargument: 68,000 tons of liquid argon vaporized, pumped 1.5 km underground, and reliquefied (DUNE).

  9. I am sad that Flanders and Swann's song "The First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics" didn't make the hit list.

  10. Ooh, so many new songs to check out!

    Here's one more: "First and Second Law" by Flanders & Swann

  11. This list comes in part from PTNC in the UK...

    Radioactivity - Kraftwerk (discovered by Madame Curie - but what about Becquerel?)
    The sun is mass of incandescent gas - they might be giants (mostly plasma!)
    Big Audio Dynamite – E=mc2
    at http://pantaneto.co.uk/the-lyrics-of-quantum-mechanics/
    Supermassive Black Hole - Muse
    Florence + The Machine song called 'Strangeness and Charm'
    """Erwin's Other Animals"" — Helen Arney (https://helenarney.bandcamp.com/track/erwins-other-animals"
    """The Race for Space"" by Public Service Broadcasting is a fascinating listen (and Fire in the Cockpit is haunting)."
    "Wurzels song about that ""stranger tractor"
    Chain reaction – Diana Ross
    Supermassive Black Hole – Muse
    Higgs Boson Blues – Nick Cave and the Bad seeds
    Quantum Theory – Jarvis Cocker
    Radioactive – Imagine Dragons
    Science friction – XTC
    She’s Electric – Oasis
    Supercollider = Fountains of Wayne
    Cosmic Thing – B52s
    Ultraviolet(light my Way) – U2
    Electricity – OMD
    Rocket Man – Elton John
    Electric Avenue – Eddie Grant
    Atomic – Blondie
    Enola Gay - OMD
    """Gravity"" by Embrace"

  12. Thanks Dr. H. Always appreciate your opinions. Significant that this time you had nothing negative to say about the book. Must be a good one!

  13. Bee, My kids loved 'meet the elements' by 'They might be giants'. My daughter still loves the elements. I give them to her as gifts.

  14. It's unforgettable that you miss the most cosmical of all musicians, Sun Ra.



  15. Somebody has to mention Woodstock (Joni Mitchell / Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young). The chorus:
    "We are stardust, we are golden
    We are billion year old carbon"

  16. I am not a contender, but Lynda Williams' "Cosmic Cabaret" album has 10 science-themed songs (all somewhat tongue-in-cheek), some of which I think are quite good.

  17. The holographic principle - Epica


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