Documentary Review: Einstein’s Big Idea

I have been an avid fan of documentaries, particularly science documentaries, for as long as I can remember. As a child, I watched the Walt Disney Show on Sunday evenings that occasionally added “nature programs” into the mix of Donald Duck, Zorro, and Davy Crockett episodes. As an undergraduate, I spent evenings watching Jonathan Miller’s The Body in Question, which captivated me and gave context to my daytime studies at the university. Later, in graduate school at Cornell, I watched each of Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos episodes as they first aired. Dr. Sagan was a professor at Cornell, and it was exciting to watch one of our own lead the way in popularizing scientific learning. At about the same time, each Wednesday evening I awaited the next installment of Life on Earth, in which David Attenborough gave the same attention to biology that Dr. Sagan gave to physics and astronomy.

Science documentaries were not nearly as plentiful in those days as they are today. The rise of cable and Internet content has led to a huge array of science documentaries available to us at the touch of a button. This is a welcome development for documentary addicts like myself, but it poses a conundrum for busy parents, teachers, and students who just want to see the most interesting and educational of these films: how to choose what to watch.

To help solve that conundrum, I thought it might be of some use to occasionally review productions that I think might be of interest to our readers. Some may be recent and some may be aged a bit but really worth watching nonetheless. I will not be so bold as to offer a rating system of stars, tomatoes, or thumbs-up; I will simply indicate why I personally like these films and perhaps what lessons about science they may present to viewers. Since many of our readers may wish to consider presenting some selections to their students, I will also suggest the educational level that seems most appropriate.

Finally, as in this case, we will embed the documentary video directly into our blog whenever possible so that readers can go directly to it rather than searching the web. Begin the video below and you will automatically be switched to the PBS site. Isn’t the Internet wonderful!

Einstein’s Big Idea, E=mc2, is an excellent documentary for students at the high school level and above. It explains not just the science but the history of Einstein’s famous equation relating matter and energy, E=mc2. In four sections, Einstein’s Big Idea takes viewers inside the development of the concepts that underpin Einstein’s equation: energy, mass, the speed of light, and the concept of squaring. By telling the stories of the scientists on whose shoulders Einstein stood, the film provides viewers with a sense of how Einstein synthesized their work into one of physics’ most famous triumphs.

The first section, “E is for Energy,” tells the story of the young Englishman Michael Faraday and his studies with electricity and magnetism in the 19th century. Faraday’s extensive experiments, along with the work of his colleague, James Clerk Maxwell, led to the idea, around 1865, that light is an electromagnetic wave. Faraday and Maxwell, the film notes, built in turn on the earlier work of Leon Foucault, who calculated the speed of light to be 298,000,000 meters per second (m/s). This is remarkably close to the 299,792,458 m/s we use today.

The documentary provides insights into Faraday’s personal life and character. It stresses his ceaseless hard work, determination, and willingness to proceed in his thinking when more noted scientists of his time disagreed with his ideas and even ridiculed him.

The next section of Einstein’s Big Idea, “M is for Mass,” centers on the 18th century French chemist Antoine Lavoisier. It focuses on Lavoisier’s insistence on the principle of conservation of mass and matter – that matter cannot be created or destroyed. The film depicts the countless experiments that Lavoisier and his wife and collaborator Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze conducted in which many different types of matter were transformed from one form to another but, upon very careful measurement, were always found to contain the same amount of mass.

Lavoisier’s work is shown along side the politics of Paris at the time. Lavoisier was also a government agent, and the supporters of the French Revolution did not consider his scientific contributions to be sufficient to spare him from the fate of many in the Parisian nobility at the time: execution by guillotine.

The concept of squaring quantities is developed in the next chapter of the documentary with a story about the French translator of Isaac Newton’s work, Emilie du Chatelet, in the first half of the 18th century. du Chatelet was a woman like Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze, who was well ahead of her time in terms of women’s place in science and society. Unfortunately, due to the period in which she lived and her exceeding short life (she died at 42) her role in the history of science has often been grossly underestimated. The documentary both recognizes and seeks to rectify this injustice.

du Chatelet recognized the importance of squaring the value of certain elements in scientific formulae. The film focuses on her interpretation of Willem Gravesande’s elegant experiments in which balls of different mass were dropped from the same distance and the volume of displacement of the clay surface on which they landed was determined. By doubling the mass of a ball, its impact on displacement was four-fold, the square of the increase in mass. du Chatelet generalized this concept of squaring certain components of scientific formulae and even reinterpreted some of Newton’s work in these terms.

The last section of the documentary, “Unlocking the Atom,” tells the fascinating story of the Austrian-born physicist Lisa Meitner. Years after the discovery of E=mc2, the revolution it sparked led to work like Meitner’s research with Otto Hahn in Germany on nuclear fission in the 1930s. Meitner’s story is told against the tragic backdrop of the growth of the Nazi government. Eventually, as a Jew, Meitner was forced to leave her position and flee Germany.

Overall Value of Einstein’s Big Idea

In each section, the documentary intersperses the story with portrayals of a young Einstein as his thinking about physics develops. Through discussions with his colleagues and wife, we see the slow development of his thinking regarding light and relativity and then the final moment when things came together in Einstein’s mind. This slow process, requiring an absolute, unceasing dedication to cracking what seemed like an unsolvable puzzle is a valuable lesson to all students who view this documentary. Einstein, so often synonymous in modern thought with effortless genius, required tireless commitment to make his most famous discovery. Not even the brilliance of his mind could overcome the requirement for sheer hard work in accomplishing something great.

The documentary gives some indication of the importance of Einstein’s wife, Mileva Maric, in his work. Maric was a doctoral student at the Zurich Polytechnic whose own scientific career was sacrificed to care for her and Einstein’s child. The extent to which her contributions to Einstein’s thinking in the critical years of his conceptualization of relativity from 1900 to 1905 are difficult to ascertain in retrospect but may have been profound. In fact, one of the most charming scenes in the documentary is when Einstein tells his young wife in their small apartment of his final conclusion that energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared. Mileva calmly looks at him and asks simply, “Would you like me to check your mathematics?”

In its attempt to display the young Einstein as a dashing, brilliant thinker, perhaps the documentary does not adequately address his personal selfishness in abandoning his wife and family at the very onset of his fame and celebrity. Yet the film’s inclusion of Maric is a welcome addition to the popular understanding of Einstein’s accomplishment.

The documentary also accentuates the fact that all advances in science are built upon the foundations laid down by others, sometime many years before or in seemingly unrelated fields. For students, it demonstrates the value of studying a broad range of scientific principles, as each learning in one field can inspire greatness in another.

Finally, Einstein’s Big Idea does a good job of providing young women and girls with brilliant and daring female role models to admire and perhaps emulate. The documentary pays sincere respect to the intellectual quality and accomplishments of women like Mileva Maric, Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze, Emilie du Chatelet, and Lisa Meitner, while pointing out how they were nonetheless subjected to constraints by a male-dominated field and society. Women are seen as important contributors to our scientific knowledge and the audience is left with no reason to believe their level of accomplishment will wane today and into the future. Therefore, Einstein’s Big Idea, while largely about male scientists, may nonetheless be of extra interest to female students.

Production and Credits

The script for Einstein’s Big Idea is well written and the acting is superb and includes a cast of recognizable actors as well as a couple of modern-day scientists. It is based on the book, E=mc2 : A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation by David Bodanis. The documentary was produced and directed by Gary Johnstone and narrated by John Lithgow. The 1 hour and 49 minute video was originally aired on October 11, 2005 on the PBS program NOVA.