Beautiful Equations

Beautiful Equations

2010, Science  -   30 Comments
Ratings: 7.95/10 from 133 users.

Matthew Collings is an artist and art critic, that's what he knows and understands, but he's about to enter an alien world. To him equations have always been incomprehensible hieroglyphs. What do they describe? Are they just a mathematical game? In this documentary he'll learn about some of the most important equations in science, which are actually masterpieces that explain the universe we live in.

With art Matthew thinks beauty is very important and he's always trying to define it and work out what it is. Now he wants to apply that knowledge to mathematics and maybe understand why scientists talk of beautiful equations. He's glad the most respected living scientist, Stephen Hawking, thinks he's onto something. So, he's come to the University of Oxford to find out more about the most famous equation of all, the one that everyone's heard of.

This equation provokes a whole load of thoughts in Matthew's mind but the main ones are that it's got something to do with the atomic bomb and of course it's by Einstein. But there's cultural knowledge and then there's math, and he doesn't know anything at all about how E=mc2 works. When Einstein first published the equation in 1905 it started a scientific revolution.

Scientists live and breathe abstract numbers, but Matthew is an art guy who left school when he was thirteen. However he can see that E=mc2, like all equations, is about balancing two sides. That's what the equal sign is all about. So this equation allows us to calculate how much energy is contained in any given mass. It's a surprise to Matthew that it applies to everything... toothpaste, book, a nail, or uranium for that matter.

This equation is universal. Since c2 is such a big number, a tiny lump of matter contains an enormous amount of energy. But what this equation doesn't tell you is how to unlock that energy. The most dramatic proof that the equation was true came forty years after Einstein first worked it out when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Matthew is impressed that E=mc2 was created before it was shown to be true. The equation was a prophecy. The five symbols explained the link between the energy and all matter across the cosmos.

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6 years ago

i really enjoyed this documentary
thank yyyyou

7 years ago

I really enjoyed this documentary because at age 46 I have finally decided to overcome my fear of science and have been on a similar journey to the narrator. The explanations of the equations were helpful to me and reinforced what I have been learning in the last few weeks. I think there is a lot of beauty to be found in science and I can understand why an equation can be perceived as being elegant - each new discovery we make is like a carefully sculptured part that fits exactly into the gap that was there in our knowledge allowing us to move forwards with our understanding and search for more answers to more questions.

Jason Cline
8 years ago

4/10, Narrator is flat out the wrong person to cast in this role. Besides his ignorance the show seems made on impulse rather than planning. Certainly a B or C rank documentary.

8 years ago

I did not like this documentary. I wanted to like it, but I did not. I should have liked it because I know that mathematical equations - and the concepts that they describe - really are beautiful. I did not like it because the narrator did not have the necessary background to explain why mathematics is beautiful. Not really his fault, I suppose; it's just that he hasn't spent the past 20-40 years studying the subject. Let's be honest, this is not an easy topic. It is impossible for anybody who has not spent at least 20 years as a mathematician or theoretical physicist to fully appreciate the elegance and beauty of this subject.

I understand that the intent of this documentary was to introduce mathematical physics to lay-people. But the attempt does its intended audience a terrible disservice. Mathematical physics is an extraordinarily difficult subject that cannot be condensed into a 1-hour long film. As a result, this documentary will produce one of two effects: 1) it will confuse and misinform an audience of non-scientist, or 2) it will frustrate and insult a audience of scientists and mathematicians.

9 years ago

At times, i feel, there's more beauty in equating than in an equation. But perhaps the real beauty lies in actually understanding it. And if that's not there, like the Dirac equation that went way over my head, then i can revert to the easthetics only. Or my imagination maybe.

But exactly the same goes for the arts.

More beauty in painting than a painting, even more in comprehending it. And if not, an aesthetics for the senses only, I imagine :)

Matuvo Namikaze
9 years ago

i want to know, if time changes - goes slower - relative to your movement speed, and when you get to the speed of light it stops moving, then how can light, (which moves at the speed of light) take time to get somewhere? is it because it is going a VERY small amount slower than the actual unaffected speed of light due to the pull of gravitational objects and other variables?

9 years ago

hawking is not seen as the most respected living scientist by his peers...he hardly makes it into the top 20......that compliment may be true for us 'mathmatical-civilians' but that is a different equation.

9 years ago

To capture beauty, whether it is in an equation, or in a work of art, only has meaning in the eye of the beholder. For an artist such as myself, I was never fond of cubism, because it is not elegant, (pleasing to the eye) and is a poor metaphor for the works of Einstein, Newton, Dirac, and Hawking!

9 years ago

Having only studied math and physic for half of my life, I have formed a similar conclusion about beauty in equations like Dirac's. Namely, that it is something one experiences, kinda like art. It is different for everyone and it is something one experiences after a long time of trial and error. You will know it when you get there but not before. People can tell you their definition of what is beautiful, like compactness, simplicity, utility, symmetry. But, trust me, it feels more like falling in love. Sure, all those qualities are there, but words fail to describe it. And once you have experienced it with one equation, it becomes easier to see beauty in all sorts of equations. In my case, my first love is the compressibility equation. She is not famous, not very slim, not so practical, not so symmetric, but she is beautiful in all her imperfections.

9 years ago

Although they were all good, I thought the Dirac segment was the best. The music for this is also very expertly done, logically matching the content step for step (I kept having to click back a bit to see what words I missed hearing). Not groundbreaking, we've probably all seen docs like it before, but very enjoyable.