Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
- William Butler Yeats
This last week BBC4 viewers who tuned into Jim Al-Khalili’s two-part series called Order and Disorder had the privilege of seeing the best science documentaries I can recall on TV. These were programmes that explained very difficult, abstract concepts (at least for a non-scientist), doing so without any dumbing-down or special effects, but in an elegant, indeed beautiful, manner.
In the first programme, the always-excellent Jim Al-Khalili explored how the attempt to define the nature of energy was approached by a cluster of scientists most of us may not have heard of: Leibniz, Carnot, Clausius and Boltzmann. Collectively, these were the guys who contributed to the development of the first and second laws of thermodynamics.
The most gripping section of Al-Khalili’s presentation concerned the Second Law of Thermodynamics which, in layman’s terms, can be simply stated like this: ‘Energy spontaneously tends to flow from being concentrated in one place to becoming diffused and spread out’. Al-Khalili explained how the Second Law was first formulated to explain how a steam engine worked; it can also explain why a cup of tea goes cold if you don’t drink it.
But Al-Khalili went on to show how the Second Law has cosmic implications. The Second Law is now used to explain the big bang, the expansion of the cosmos and to predict the inexorable passage of time towards the ‘heat death’ of the universe. Everything decays, entropy is destiny. It’s been called the most fundamental law in all of science. CP Snow in his Two Cultures wrote: ‘Not knowing the Second Law of Thermodynamics is like never having read a work of Shakespeare’. It certainly never impinged on my own education.
‘The universe itself must one day die, stated Khalili . ‘All we’re doing,’ he said, is ‘trying to preserve a tiny pocket of order in a cosmos that’s falling apart’.
Jim Al-Khalili’s documentaries always feature his very clear explanations, and this was no exception. But what made these programmes really outstanding was their design: beautifully photographed visuals were minimalist rather than bombastic, stark white backdrops introduced each new segment,and Khalili was often filmed against a similarly bare backdrop militating against anything that distracted from his words.
Stephen Curry, a scientist who works at Imperial College wrote about this beautiful, intelligent film on his blog:
Too often science on TV is ill-served by the visual nature of the medium. The subject becomes subservient to the images used, too many of them being a wrong and therefore distracting choice, or worse — clichés. Here instead there was an artful unity of the visuals and the science. The film includes a visit to the Crossness steam pumping station in south east London, where the camera pans lovingly over the decorative detail that the Victorians lavished on their cathedral of power. There is very good use of computer graphics to illustrate the dispersion of heat through atomic motion and a sequence of great fun and originality in which Al Khalili sketches out an equation on entropy using a hairdryer. But my favourite shot is of condensation dribbling blackened tracks from a statement of Boltzmann’s entropy equation, written there moments before in marker pen.
In the second programme Khalili revealed how the concepts of information and entropy are intimately linked. This time the featured engineers and scientists (Jaquard, Morse, Maxwell, Turing and Shannon) were men who, by figuring out how to reduce information to a simple code (whether a card that directed a silk loom to weave patterns, Morse’s telegraph code, or Turing’s computational algorithms) laid the basis for almost boundless information processing and communication where, in the 21st century, anything – sounds, pictures, texts – can be stored in universal bits.
Starting with Mesopotamian pictograms and progressing through Jaquard’s programmable punch-card loom to Morse’s code and the birth of the computer era, Al-Khalili showed how seeing everything as a series of ones and zeroes has propelled civilisation forward. He also revealed how information is transmitted every day in many different forms, and isn’t solely reliant on human communication: this (I think) is where the two strands of his series – energy and entropy on the one hand, and information on the other – finally came together.
- The Life Scientific: Jim Al-Khalili’s Radio 4 chats with leading scientists. The ones I have heard have all been relaxed and informative.
- The Secret Life of Chaos: an earlier BBC4 documentary which can be viewed on the website of the production company, Furnace
- Science and Islam: another excellent BBC4 series in 3 parts which can be watched on YouTube
- The Second Law of Thermodynamics
- Information theory: Wikipedia