Documentaries about physics
April 8, 2011 6:27 PM   Subscribe

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 and Atom; 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?
posted by gentle to Science & Nature (17 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I don't have any specific recommendations, but I've been quite pleased with TED talks with similar requirements about a different subject matter. Maybe poke through some of these (TED talks tagged with Physics).
posted by brainmouse at 6:33 PM on April 8, 2011

Best answer: Perhaps not exactly what you're looking for, but, have you seen Sixty Symbols and the other University of Nottingham channels like Periodic Videos and Nottingham Science?

Oh, and if you dislike Jim Al-Khalili, you probably won't like Everything and Nothing, which was a bit overflashy and tended to stray on the simple side of things (though it was still really enjoyable).
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 6:34 PM on April 8, 2011

Response by poster: TED is usually excellent, I will see if I have missed any physics stuff.

As for the U of Nottingham: Yes, I love those videos! I think I have seen most of Sixty Symbols videos, I will check out the others.
posted by gentle at 6:48 PM on April 8, 2011

Best answer: Richard Feynman's lectures are available online. Not exactly a documentary but good stuff and accessible and enjoyable.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:51 PM on April 8, 2011

On preview, I see you mentioned this, but there's enough to keep you busy for quite a while.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:53 PM on April 8, 2011

Best answer: I'm not sure which Feynman videos you watched and found insufficiently watchable, but I thought these were awesome.
posted by dfan at 7:08 PM on April 8, 2011

Best answer: Have you seen The Mechanical Universe? At least some of it is on YouTube.
posted by xil at 8:37 PM on April 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Atom Smashers (which, btw, was produced by Mefi's asuprenant).
posted by googly at 8:58 PM on April 8, 2011

Two suggestions:

1. One of my favorite physics videos to watch and share with other people is the Physics Sciences Study Committee film "Frames of Reference". Not a documentary by any means, but a masterful and meaningful visual introduction to relative motion.

2. Along the lines of the xil's post, search around on Open Courseware (MIT, Berkeley, Stanford) offerings and look for courses that offer videos of their lectures. Almost by definition a documentary is going to have to dumb things down a little bit for that broader appeal. So it seems like university lectures may be at the level you're looking for. I suggest not going straight to the physics courses, but looking at sub-topics like aeronautics, material sciences, etc.
posted by msittig at 9:00 PM on April 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Secret Life of Machines

This is not what you are looking for, but you will like it.
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:24 AM on April 9, 2011

Best answer: Here's something you might like. Sidney Coleman lectures on Quantum Field Theory, recorded back in 1975-1976. Think of it as a little slice of physics history from one of the great expositors of the field.
posted by casaubon at 1:16 AM on April 9, 2011

Response by poster: Let's see. The Feynman lectures I was referring to were these. Not watched the newer ones, will check them out, thanks!

The Sidney Coleman lectures look interesting, but it looks like they only exist as streamable video, which means I will need my computer to watch, which is not ideal. The audio and video quality is pretty awful, but I can live with that. Unfortunately the player does not permit me to jump around in the video, so I can't skip the significant amount of introductory student info in the beginning, for example, or continue from an earlier session of watching, or jump back in case I missed something. In other words, probably too impractical for me to actually bother with.

The Open Courseware stuff is what I referred to earlier, but I was actually thinking about Stanford University's free video lectures. I tried watching a bunch of lectures by Prof. Leonard Susskind, such as this one, but he's so long-winded and slow-talking and generally uninspiring that I gave up. I have looked through Open Courseware's list of lectures on physics, and there's some stuff on classical mechanics (which doesn't interest me much) and electricity, but there's very little video material there on interesting stuff like quantum theory.

Thanks for the other links. Atom Smashers and The Mechanical Universe look great, will be watching them soon.
posted by gentle at 5:15 PM on April 9, 2011

Response by poster: Atom Smashers was very interesting — a welcome change to see the actual physicists sitting in their office talking about how they are processing collider data and hoping they will find something before CERN does. Not as technical as I had hoped, but still entertaining. Loved the subtle choice of electronic music.

The Mechanical Universe is very odd, though probably unintentionally so. It opens with a fake lecture at Caltech where a professor makes some point and fake students laugh at his jokes. I was disappointed to realize that it was fake and merely a preamble to a Cosmos-like narrative about classical mechanics. It gets pretty detailed in the maths, explaining basic things like differential calculus and vectors, and uses computer graphics to good effect, so that part is quite good. But it also feels extremely padded; the episode about vectors, for example, is surreal: to illustrate how vectors can be used to model motion, they have a long segment with some actors pretending to be drunk and lost at sea and unable to use mathematics to save themselves, and lots of scenes from the coast guard trying to track down said people. The numerous attempts at humour are pretty feeble ("Galileo had a distressing habit of formulating his scientific remarks in Italian"), but I appreciate the attempt to liven things up. There is some other weird stuff. At certain points a disembodied female voice which sounds a lot like Sigourney Weaver comes out of nowhere and mechanically intones some scientific axiom, like a female computer out of a 60s scifi B-movie; it freaks me out every time. But overall I'm enjoying it, and learning a few things along the way. Thanks!
posted by gentle at 2:55 PM on April 10, 2011

Best answer: Ooh. I came across Colliding Particles, a video blog about several scientists, including Jon Butterworth who writes science articles for The Guardian, and which follows their life as physicists at CERN.
posted by gentle at 5:07 PM on April 10, 2011

Came in here to mention Mechanical Universe and am agog at the negative review. The animated, narrated mathematics is absolutely the best part! The historical segments, cartoons and jokes are awesome! That show is one of my formative experiences and my 12 year old proto-nerd loves it too.
posted by DU at 5:42 AM on April 11, 2011

Response by poster: Hey, my review wasn't all negative. As I said, overall I'm enjoying it. The animated maths is quite fun.

I'm not 12 anymore, so the silly stuff does not entirely appeal to me. Some of the historical sequences are cheapened by having apparently been lifted wholesale from Cosmos (or perhaps it, too, borrow them for somewhere else?), while some other sequences (like the three guys "lost at sea" in their yacht) seem to have been included for no reason at all.
posted by gentle at 6:58 AM on April 11, 2011

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