Einstein and Hawking: Master of our Universe makes greatest scientific breakthroughs accessible, exciting

Einstein and Hawking: Master of our Universe, a two-part BBC docu-series, documents their contributions to science.

Aarushi Agrawal February 01, 2020 17:36:32 IST
Einstein and Hawking: Master of our Universe makes greatest scientific breakthroughs accessible, exciting

Einstein, through his theory of relativity, and Stephen Hawking, through his work on black holes, have had among the greatest impact on our understanding of the universe.

Einstein and Hawking – Master of our Universe, a two-part BBC docu-series, documents their contributions to science whilst also weaving a narrative of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the past century.

Einstein and Hawking Master of our Universe makes greatest scientific breakthroughs accessible exciting

Einstein and Stephen Hawking. All photos courtesy Sony BBC Earth.

The show expertly breaks down complex scientific concepts, making them accessible for viewers from all backgrounds. From explaining how time is relative and seemingly slows down on moving objects to introducing general relativity and space-time curvature, it uses animation, graphics, and demonstrations for conceptual clarity.

The show also defines the weight of the impact each new breakthrough has on the scientific mind and community. On screen, scientists marvel at the idea that we know the universe has a beginning and a middle, they discuss the implications of the fact that the Big Bang is real, and meditate on the strangeness of the universe in all its vast mystery.

The foremost names in physics are interviewed to give viewers context and understanding about the things being discussed. Among them are MIT physicist David Kaiser, Caltech theoretical physicist Sean M Carroll, Columbia University theoretical physicist Brian Greene, Barnard College theoretical cosmologist Janna Levin, astrophysicist and cosmologist Hakeem M Oluseyi, theoretical physicist and string theorist Robbert Dijkgraaf, and aerospace engineer Zachary Manchester. They discuss, demonstrate, and communicate to the viewer the meaning and significance of each new discovery in a manner and language that are easy to follow.

While Einstein provided the theory of relativity, the show also discusses how other scientists then explored his theory more thoroughly than he ever did, and how deeply Hawking’s work builds upon it. In journeying a century from the work of one to the other, the show stops to recognise the important breakthroughs that came in between.

For instance, it takes us to the lab of Jocelyn Bell in the 1960s, who, as a 24-year-old student, discovered pulsars. The discovery signalled to the scientific community that black holes also perhaps existed. And then in 1974, Hawking combined quantum mechanics with relativity, proposing black holes might evaporate, leading to the information paradox scientists are still tackling.

In bringing audiences up to speed with the latest developments in scientific research, a curious, non-intrusive camera introduces viewers to the machines used to achieve these results. Like the Large Hadron Collider, which is the largest machine in the world, the Event Horizon Telescope, with which scientists in 2019 photographed the first-ever image of a black hole, and the  Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), through which Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Barry Barish in 2015 made the Nobel Prize-winning discovery of gravitational waves.

Throughout, in a familiar BBC style, audiences are guided by the assured narration of Kate Yule, coupled with dramatic (without being over-the-top) sound effects, that convey the depth of the topics being discussed.

Among the most unique highlights of the show is the plethora of archival footage, photographs, and sounds the show uses. When not interviewing a scientist or showing a machine, the show relies on archives to take the narrative visually forward. The editing stutters at times feels jarring, unlike the serious narrative of the show. In trying to fit in a large amount of archival material, the flow of the show feels disrupted at junctures, and distracts instead of aiding viewers.

The show also ties in a little bit of the two scientists’ personal narratives, discussing how Einstein was bad at academics, stuck in a mediocre job, and later worried about the destructive implications of his science. It quickly brushes past the background of the two World Wars, which Einstein lived through as a Jew. Even more briskly, it mentions Hawking’s motor neuron disease.

For a show commemorating the work of these two scientists, it has not spent much time or effort focusing on them as individuals at all. While their focus is the science, the show comes off more as a catalogue of their discoveries, often struggling to bring alive the scientists even in a professional capacity.

These are easy hurdles to look through, since the show ultimately succeeds in its function of documenting and explaining the greatest scientific discoveries of the past century. It makes these concepts not only accessible but also exciting, and leaves one with a sense of wonder at the many great breakthroughs yet to come.

The India premier of Einstein and Hawking – Master of our Universe is on 1 February at 10 pm on Sony BBC Earth.

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