E=mc2: Einstein’s Big Idea
NOVA dramatizes the remarkable story behind this equation
Exactly 100 years ago, Albert Einstein grappled with the implications of his revolutionary special theory of relativity and came to a startling conclusion: mass and energy are one, related by the formula E = mc2. In “Einstein’s Big Idea,” NOVA dramatizes the remarkable story behind this equation.
E = mc2 was just one of several extraordinary breakthroughs that Einstein made in 1905, including the completion of his special theory of relativity, his identification of proof that atoms exist, and his explanation of the nature of light, which would win him the Nobel Prize in Physics. To honor the centenary of these achievements, 2005 has been declared the World Year of Physics by the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics.
Among Einstein’s ideas, E = mc2 is by far the most famous. Yet how many people know what it really means? In a thought-provoking and engrossing docudrama, NOVA illuminates this deceptively simple formula by unraveling the story of how it came to be.
Based on David Bodanis’s bestselling book E = mc2: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation, the program explores the lives of the men and women who helped develop the concepts behind each term in the equation: E for energy; m for mass; c for the speed of light; and 2 for “squared,” the multiplication of one number by itself. Like a multi-plot novel building to a climactic scene, “Einstein’s Big Idea” traces the stories of a fascinating range of characters, including:
Einstein (played by Aidan McArdle: Ella Enchanted, Not Only But Always): In 1905 he was a 26-year-old family man stuck in a dead-end job at a Swiss patent office. In his spare time, he single-mindedly pursued an unconventional approach to physics.
Mileva Maric (Shirley Henderson: Bridget Jones, Harry Potter): Einstein’s first wife, a struggling scientist as well as a young mother, paid a heavy price for her husband’s obsession.
Michael Faraday (Stephen Robertson: Inside I’m Dancing): Starting out as a poor bookbinder, he rose to become one of the giants of 19th-century science. He studied how different forces could be changed into each other, laying the groundwork for the modern scientific concept of energy.
Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (Julian Rhind-Tutt: Madness of King George): This French aristocrat and amateur scientist was carted off to the guillotine during the French Revolution—but not before he proved that total mass is never lost, no matter what sort of physical transformation a substance undergoes.
James Clerk Maxwell (Richard Henshall): In the late 19th century, this young Scot showed that light is an electromagnetic wave with a very strange property: no matter how fast you travel, light always travels away from you at the same speed of 670 million miles per hour.
Emilie du Châtelet (Helene De Fougeroles: Fanfan la Tulipe): A mathematical genius and lover to the French philosopher Voltaire, she clarified a long-standing debate, showing that the velocity of an object must be squared when calculating its total energy.
Lise Meitner (Emily Woof: The Woodlanders): Working after Einstein proposed his famous equation, she was the first to show that a uranium atom can be split, converting a tiny amount of mass into a prodigious amount of energy, according to the formula E = mc2. This discovery eventually led to the development of the atomic bomb.
The program also features comments from David Bodanis as well as from Michio Kaku of the City University of New York, James Gates of the University of Maryland, Patricia Fara of Cambridge University, David Kaiser of MIT, Judith Zinsser of Miami University, Ruth Lewin Sime of Sacramento City College, and Lisa Randall, Professor of Theoretical Physics at Harvard University.
Genius by genius, idea by idea, “Einstein’s Big Idea” shows how Einstein’s remarkable predecessors provided the intellectual tools for his extraordinary breakthrough—and will help you understand this famous equation as never before.
- NOVA: Einstein’s Big Idea