Clifford Johnson

Clifford Johnson

A Scholar with Physical Ambitions

By Katherine Yungmee Kim

When Clifford Johnson talks about the formation of crystals, he refers to its “beautiful math.” He reminisces about an earlier “flirtation” with theoretical condensed matter physics. But his real passion ignites when he is discussing his current research: string theory, matrix models, D-branes and black holes.

Johnson, a professor in the College’s physics department, came to USC College in the fall of 2003 as part of the Senior Faculty Hiring Initiative. This advancement effort strives to hire outstanding senior faculty and well-established associate professor candidates.

“Cliff is a leading expert on the most recent developments in the theory of superstrings … and a skilled lecturer,” says Gene Bickers, chair of the department of physics and astronomy.

Johnson has been studying string theory since the late 1980s. String theory is a revolutionary field in contemporary physics as it attempts to unify gravity, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force—the four forces of nature—within a single mathematical framework.

Born in London and raised for ten years on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, Johnson “always wanted to be a scientist.” He decided when he was nine that he would specialize as a physicist (he looked it up in the dictionary) and claims that he’s been “boringly single-minded” ever since.

He got his bachelors in physics from Imperial College at London University, and went straight on to obtain his Ph.D. at Southampton University. In graduate school, he worked with a small group doing cutting edge work in Conformal Field Theory and in a formulation of string theory called Matrix Models.

His enthusiasm for teaching parallels his intellectual appetite. Johnson referred to his childhood in the Caribbean, as a time when he was always running into a “limit to what you could find in the library.” Likewise while lecturing in South Africa, he was struck by the pervasive post-apartheid problems in education, where he felt students were simply missing opportunities. So he developed a scientific education program called ASTI—The African Summer Theory Institute—for students, high school teachers and researchers to convene and discuss scientific ideas.