Why is the night sky a time machine? And what’s happening at the smallest scale of the Universe? Professor Jim Al-Khalili has some intriguing answers.
Have you met Jim Al-Khalili? (You’re about to.) He's a UK-based theoretical physicist and also a talented interpreter of technical science for people like us – sort of a British version of Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye, the Science Guy. He has hosted tons of TV science shows, including three you can watch anytime you like.
Jim turns us on to stories of science that have laid the foundation of what we know about our place in the Universe. Whom will we meet on these journeys? How about Blaise Pascal, Alan Turing, Ludwig Boltzmann, and the universally renowned Albert Einstein, to name a few. What a collection of great minds!
Blaise Pascal, the Weight of Air, and the Content of Nothingness
Have you ever found yourself wondering about life at the smallest levels? That’s the focus of the documentary Everything and Nothing, which views the Universe from the largest macro level down to the smallest: the level where we may think nothing exists.
To descend close to the level of “nothingness,” let’s imagine a space that has been emptied of all air to become a vacuum. What’s left? Theoretically, the space should be pitch-black and nonreflective, but something must be there – otherwise we wouldn’t see light reflected in a vacuum tube. So what’s up? The fact is, as Jim Al-Khalili explains, even at that level of “nothingness,” vacuum space contains electrons and other molecular substances, which reflect the light we see.
In Everything and Nothing, we are introduced to philosopher and scientist Blaise Pascal, whose study of vacuums revealed that air has pressure and can be “weighed.” Peering deeper into the void, we visit the strange environs of subatomic particles, where we find not only matter but also a virtually equal amount of “anti-matter.” And we learn that even in the most desolate spans of space, anti-matter is just as important to our Universe as matter is.
Alan Turing, Ludwig Boltzmann, and the Tragic Ends of Brilliant Men
Want to learn about Alan Turing? He was the British mathematician and all-around genius who first conceived of “computing machines” in a paper in 1936 and is now recognized as the “godfather of all modern computers.” His story is contained within Order and Disorder on MagellanTV.
Turing had a life that was equally glorious and miserable, as seen in the recent film The Imitation Game (2014). During World War II, he led the British effort to penetrate the Germans’ Enigma code by devising a sophisticated procedure to decrypt the military messaging system. But after the war he was hounded out of service for being homosexual, and he eventually committed suicide by taking cyanide.
Order and Disorder also tells the tale of another mathematician, Ludwig Boltzmann, whose life ended badly, even as his theories of atomic movement later became recognized as groundbreaking concepts that pushed science forward a few notches.
Sadly, Boltzmann’s theories were challenged and ridiculed by more orthodox thinkers of the time, many of whom were not even convinced that atoms existed! Facing such rejection by his peers, and saddled with crippling depression, he hanged himself in 1906.
How Viewing the Sky Is Like Seeing Through a Time Machine
Thankfully, Al-Khalili’s stories aren’t all so distressing. In the third documentary in this trilogy, The Amazing World of Gravity, we meet up with the illustrious Albert Einstein, who, among his many other interests and achievements, used his theories to pursue the goal of measuring gravity in space. His findings led to our current understanding that gravity has the capacity to curve space and actually slow down time.
As light on its way to Earth passes around a large object in space, the gravity of that object bends light, thereby slowing it down as it approaches us. So not only are we looking into the past when we view the night sky to see stars that are billions of light-years away, but their light has been delayed even more by gravity as it passes around other stars and large-mass objects on its way here. The sky is our very own time machine!
These are just a few of the roughly 30 documentaries in which Jim Al-Khalili has served as guide. As you ponder the big questions about the totality of “everything” and the surprising fullness of “nothing”; the role of “order” and the necessity of “disorder”; and the weightiness of gravity, you can be assured that someone’s ready with an expert (and entertaining) explanation.
Kevin Martin is Senior Writer for MagellanTV. He writes on a wide variety of topics, including outer space, the fine arts, and modern history. He has had a long career as a journalist and communications specialist with both nonprofit and for-profit organizations. He resides in Glendale, California.