Beautiful Equations: Documentary Explores the Beauty of Einstein & Newton’s Great Equations

Like many right-brained peo­ple, artist and crit­ic Matt Collings finds high­er math mys­ti­fy­ing, a word that implies both bewil­der­ment and won­der. Faced with the equa­tions that make, for exam­ple, Stephen Hawking’s work pos­si­ble, most of us are left sim­i­lar­ly slack-jawed. Collings apt­ly describes the realm of the­o­ret­i­cal physics—which so con­tra­dicts our every­day experience—as “an alien world,” with its equa­tions like “incom­pre­hen­si­ble hiero­glyphs.” He decid­ed to enter this world, to “learn about some of the most impor­tant equa­tions in sci­ence.” His angle? He views them as art, “mas­ter­pieces” that “explain the world we live in.” Collings spends his hour-long BBC spe­cial Beau­ti­ful Equa­tions chat­ting with Stephen Hawk­ing and oth­er the­o­rists about such par­a­digm-shift­ing equa­tions as Einstein’s for­mu­la for spe­cial rel­a­tiv­i­ty and Newton’s laws of grav­i­ty.

In an era char­ac­ter­ized by sci­en­tists encroach­ing on the arts—to claim Mar­cel Proust as a neu­ro­sci­en­tist, Jane Austen as game the­o­rist—it’s refresh­ing to see a human­i­ties per­son engage the world of math, using the only schema he knows to make sense of what seems to him unin­tel­li­gi­ble. Unlike those sci­en­tists-turned-lit­er­ary crit­ics, Collings doesn’t make any large claims or assert exper­tise. He plays the hum­ble every­man, own­ing his igno­rance, his most endear­ing and effec­tive tool since it pro­vides the basis for his inter­locu­tors’ reme­di­al, and friend­ly, expla­na­tions. The results are an intel­li­gent primer for lay­folk, a refresh­er for the more knowl­edge­able, and per­haps an enter­tain­ing diver­sion for experts, who will like­ly have their quib­bles with Collings’ nec­es­sar­i­ly basic pre­sen­ta­tion. But he is not on the hunt for complexity—quite the oppo­site. As the title of the spe­cial indi­cates, Collings’ inquiry seeks to find out just what makes the work of New­ton, Ein­stein, and oth­ers so pro­found­ly, sim­ply ele­gant.

Aes­thet­ic feel­ing is not at all alien to math—far from it, in fact. As Bertrand Rus­sell famous­ly wrote in his essay “Mys­ti­cism and Log­ic”: “Math­e­mat­ics, right­ly viewed, pos­sess­es not only truth, but supreme beau­ty.” Rus­sel­l’s point has been empir­i­cal­ly val­i­dat­ed by recent neu­ro­science. As report­ed in Feb­ru­ary, a study in the jour­nal Fron­tiers in Human Neu­ro­science found that in the brains of math­e­mati­cians, “the same emo­tion­al brain cen­tres used to appre­ci­ate art” are “acti­vat­ed by ‘beau­ti­ful’ maths.” While the con­cept of beau­ty itself may be impos­si­ble to quan­ti­fy, when it comes to equa­tions, sci­en­tists (or at least their brains) know it when they see it. The rest of us, like Collings, may require an appre­ci­a­tion course to under­stand the awe inspired by the math that, as our host puts it, so ele­gant­ly cap­tures the “enor­mi­ty of the uni­verse.”

You can find Beau­ti­ful Equa­tions list­ed in our col­lec­tion of Free Doc­u­men­taries, part of our larg­er col­lec­tion of 675 Free Movies Online.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Einstein’s Big Idea: E=mc²

Sev­en Ques­tions for Stephen Hawk­ing: What Would He Ask Albert Ein­stein & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Vernon W. Daley says:

    I have read “Pow­er vs Force” and cur­rent­ly read­ing “My Big Toe”. I enjoyed this film as it relates the nat­ur­al, pure beau­ty of our uni­verse, and our rela­tion­ship to it.

  • Doumafis Lafontant says:

    Eye have enjoyed watch­ing this doc­u­men­tary very much. It is rem­i­nis­cent of Bohm, D., par­tic­u­lar­ly his pro­pos­al that Math­e­mat­ics and Sci­ence are forms of Art. Inter­est­ing­ly, the The­o­ry of Rel­a­tiv­i­ty leads me to con­clude pover­ty is rel­a­tive. There­fore, each region of the world has its own beau­ti­ful lifestyle.

  • Nikki Heywood says:

    Hi,can any­one tell me the exact name of one of the sci­en­tists fea­tured: Paul Durel or Paul Durek, some­thing? Thanks.

  • Rita hayworth says:

    Paul Dirac

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