Beautiful Equations

2010, Science  -  60 min Leave a Comment
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Matthew Collings is an artist and art critic, that's what he knows and understands, but he's about to enter an alien world. To him equations have always been incomprehensible hieroglyphs. What do they describe? Are they just a mathematical game? In this documentary he'll learn about some of the most important equations in science, which are actually masterpieces that explain the universe we live in.

With art Matthew thinks beauty is very important and he's always trying to define it and work out what it is. Now he wants to apply that knowledge to mathematics and maybe understand why scientists talk of beautiful equations. He's glad the most respected living scientist, Stephen Hawking, thinks he's onto something. So, he's come to the University of Oxford to find out more about the most famous equation of all, the one that everyone's heard of.

This equation provokes a whole load of thoughts in Matthew's mind but the main ones are that it's got something to do with the atomic bomb and of course it's by Einstein. But there's cultural knowledge and then there's math, and he doesn't know anything at all about how E=mc2 works. When Einstein first published the equation in 1905 it started a scientific revolution.

Scientists live and breathe abstract numbers, but Matthew is an art guy who left school when he was thirteen. However he can see that E=mc2, like all equations, is about balancing two sides. That's what the equal sign is all about. So this equation allows us to calculate how much energy is contained in any given mass. It's a surprise to Matthew that it applies to everything... toothpaste, book, a nail, or uranium for that matter.

This equation is universal. Since c2 is such a big number, a tiny lump of matter contains an enormous amount of energy. But what this equation doesn't tell you is how to unlock that energy. The most dramatic proof that the equation was true came forty years after Einstein first worked it out when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Matthew is impressed that E=mc2 was created before it was shown to be true. The equation was a prophecy. The five symbols explained the link between the energy and all matter across the cosmos.