The first text to appear on Clifford V. Johnson’s personal website is the same verse that Bilbo Baggins sings as he leaves The Shire and sets out toward Rivendell. It’s not an odd choice for a physicist who would go on to advise for movies like Avengers: Endgame.
Johnson is a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Southern California, where his work centers around describing the origins of the Universe. He’s been awarded the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award – one of the organization’s most prestigious awards for early-career faculty. He’s also a recipient of the Institute of Physics’ James Clerk Maxwell Medal and Prize, which is awarded for outstanding early career contributions to theoretical physics.
He’s also the author of The Dialogues, the 2017 graphic novel about the science of the universe for non-experts. As Johnson told the Los Angeles Times, the novel is meant to be a modern-day Socratic dialogue — a question-and-answer conversation format that helps clarify logic and ideas. Ultimately, those conversations are a crash course in how to talk about science with the clarity of an expert but the tenor of a regular person. And talking about science has become just as much a defining pillar of Johnson’s career as doing physics itself.
Not many theoretical physicists have IMDb pages, but Johnson is one of them. Thanks to Johnson, many of our most wild-ride sci-fi fantasies (Avengers: Endgame, Infinity War, Ms. Marvel, Star Trek: Discovery – the list goes on) have a real-life flavor. As IndieWire reported, it was thanks to Johnson that we know Thor’s hammer was forged in the “heart of a dying star.” He also helped theorize potential time travel scenarios that became the central plot of Avengers: Endgame.
Like the Hobbit whose song is plastered to the top of his webpage, Johnson’s career has followed a long and winding journey from London to the Caribbean, back to London, then to New Jersey, and finally to Los Angeles. Unlike Bilbo, Johnson has always known where he was headed.
Inverse spoke to Johnson on how he’s battled preconceived notions about race and physics, the kind of advice you should be “happy to reject,” and why you shouldn’t go ice skating before big exams.
In the Inverse original series ROOKIE YEAR, leaders in STEM, business, and the arts give us a crash course in early adulthood, breaking down the triumphs, stumbles, and lessons learned from their first year in the working world.