CP Snow must be doing cartwheels in his grave. The BBC has made a beautiful, intelligent film about the second law of thermodynamics. You only have until Tuesday 30th Oct* to catch it on iPlayer and you should.
Presented by Prof. Jim Al Khalili, the first episode of Order and Disorder is devoted to the slippery concept of Energy. Tracking through history Al Khalili tells the tale of how the emergence of the all-conquering steam engine focused the minds of scientists on the question of how heat was being converted to do useful work and collided inevitably with the even more abstruse notion of entropy.
As I watched, my excitement and admiration grew because the programme steadfastly refused to shy away from the difficulty of the topic. It held its nerve to explore the discovery that entropy emerges naturally from the fact that the universe is made of atoms. I have never seen the subject unfurled so adroitly before.
Better yet, this is a beautiful film. 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.
I hope the BBC might leave it on iPlayer permanently.
*Update 07-04-14: The second episode, which discusses information — the flipside of entropy — is just as good. At present both episodes can be found on YouTube; click for ep1 and ep2 (not sure how long these links will last).