A television programme about the second law of thermodynamics

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.

Regular readers of this blog will know I am a fan of thermodynamics (and atoms). Like CP Snow, I wish that more people might share this enthusiasm and, thanks to Order and Disorder, they can.

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).

This entry was posted in History of Science, Science & Media, TV review and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to A television programme about the second law of thermodynamics

  1. Steve Caplan says:


    Sounds like a great program, and I was truly disappointed to see the following notice when trying to pull it up: “We do not currently support BBC iPlayer outside the United Kingdom.”

    Any advice on how to overcome this? I’d love to watch it with my kids…

  2. Richard Van Noorden says:

    A very elegiac and artful programme. Lovely stuff – I do wonder what someone who had never heard of energy and entropy would take from it. Far better than any other science programme on the BBC, I thought. I’m looking forward to the next one in the series on information – which I’ve always been slightly baffled by (perhaps because I was never taught it at university, unlike entropy).

    • David Howey says:

      Oooh – I’m glad there’s on information. Nice. You may know this, but information and entropy are quite intimately linked (look up ‘Maxwell’s demon’). Also check out MacKay’s wonderful book on information theory http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/itprnn/book.html – available as pdf.

      • Richard Van Noorden says:

        Thanks David. Yes, I’ve gathered they’re linked, but have never quite been able to straighten out the concepts in my head. I”ll try Mackay’s book. Slowly.

        • Grant says:

          There some work in bioinformatics that links that two, too, as you might expect. Tom Schneider probably has some (very old) articles about this on-line somewhere. I read this stuff as an undergrad just as I was getting sucked into what is now called bioinformatics! ;-)

      • PL Hayes says:

        “You may know this, but information and entropy are quite intimately linked…”

        Yes, and it’s amazing how much confusion and misunderstanding there has been (and still is) about this and other matters of probability, information and entropy:

        “There is a school of thought which militantly rejects all attempts to point out the close relation between entropy and information, claiming that such considerations have nothing to do with energy; or even that they would make entropy ‘subjective’ and it could therefore could have nothing to do with experimental facts at all.” ( http://bayes.wustl.edu/etj/articles/gibbs.paradox.pdf )

        And, speaking of wonderful books… http://geocalc.clas.asu.edu/html/Inferential.html

  3. Graham Steel says:

    On the topic of watching BBC programmes on iPlayer and viewing BBC content (and much more) generally, please refer to the middle section of this archived version of I post I published last year:- http://scienceseeker.org/blog/2011/08/05/repository-fringe-2011-review/ ;-)

  4. Dan says:

    An excellent effort, of course as pointed out in the program itself, even perfection atrophies due to entropy,minor issue but the music composer seemed to have copied most diegetic music from a horror film, made it harder to concentrate, also the BBC may not have stored on iPlayer this program as they’d then have to delete an ‘entertainment’,and we all know how complex deletion is as a process after watching the information episode.

    • Stephen says:

      I have to say I didn’t notice the music being distracting, but now that you’ve pointed it out, it’ll probably distract me the next time… ;-)

  5. Pingback: Year | Reciprocal Space