What are some great documentaries (or documentary series) about physics? Note: I'm a physics nerd, and I'm picky. Explanations and caveats inside.
Too many documentaries gloss over the gritty details in the interest of simplifying for the general public. I prefer documentaries that are not bogged down by a narrator who tries to shoehorn everything into a Popular Science magazine model; often, nothing is better than to watch a seasoned phycisist talk about their field in an intelligent way.
In my mind, one of the worst perpetrators of this kind of format is Michio Kaku with his Physics of the Impossible
programme, perhaps because he combines childish simplifications with the total absence of charm. I was also rather disappointed with Jim Al-Khalili's Chemistry: A Volatile History
; Al-Khalili is likeable enough, but most of the time it's just too oversimplified, with fancy visual effects and narrative gimmicks taking the place of actual content. There are a few extraordinary exceptions, such as Carl Sagan's Cosmos
and James Burke's Connections
, that work exceedingly thanks to their charm, wit, insightfulness and visionary perspective. And Richard Feynman, of course, is always entertaining and insightful.
Other docs I have seen recently that didn't impress me: Michael Moseley's The Story of Science: Power, Proof and Passion
(good content, nice guy, but often too glossy), BBC's Beautiful Equations
(works whenever a physicist is talking, otherwise boring and often sometimes embarrassing to watch), Absolute Zero
(decent, bit too glossy), Brian Cox's Wonders of the Solar System
(quite good if a bit fluffy, and the guy's gushing enthusiasm gets annoying fast), the Bang Goes the Theory
series (annoying kids show like Top Gear on steroids), the Rough Science
series (interesting but hideously padded and annoyingly edited for artificial suspense) and the latest season of NOVA scienceNOW
(Neil deGrasse Tyson is great, but it's so flashy and childish I gave up after a single episode). Loved the NatGeo "Supersmasher" episode on the building of the Large Hadron Collider as it was composed almost entirely of clips of the LHC itself, even though it had that typically annoying US television format where they try to up the suspense with a trailer-guy narrator going "…but nobody could have prepared them for what happened NEXT… (commercial break)" and that continuous stream of loud, pumping music. Argh.
Well, in short, I'm just not fired up by these documentaries that pad their content, simplify the science, use editing and music for artificial suspense or otherwise replace real depth and detail with superficial gimmickry. Physics is hard to do a documentary about because it's perceived as dry, and producers keep trying to mitigate the dryness by piling on 3D visualizations, or doing on-location filming of Newton's house, or doing historical reconstructions of Galileo's Venice. But my favourite documentaries are those where I can listen to talented physicists talk about their favourite subjects. I could listen to Feynman talk all day.
Actual lectures may be an option. I have checked out Feynman's public lectures from the 1960s, but the film quality is horrendous to the point where his blackboard isn't even readable, so I would rather just stick to his classic "Lectures on Physics" books. I have also checked out some of those MIT video lectures that are free on the net, but they were singularly uninspiring and slow moving.
So, what now?