Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Physics of Light

by Drew Martin
Over the past week I watched a six-part, South Korean-made series about physics, called The Physics of Light. It is a well-done and engaging introduction to the scientific conceptual leaps made by Galileo, Newton, Einstein and other famous scientists.

Some of the concepts are quite complicated, especially when it ventures into Quantum Mechanics, and five variations of String Theory rolled up into M-Theory. Don't feel bad if you find these ideas difficult to understand, Einstein himself could not wrap his head around Quantum Mechanics and everything that came after that. Fortunately this series is witty and clear.

At times I could not tell if it was being dumbed down a bit for a younger audience or if it was simply a cultural difference; that a South Korean approach to education might purposefully be repetitive with explanations.

I always tell people that I went to college to study medical illustration (ended up getting a degree in fine arts after studying "pre-med" for two years) but more accurately I was going to focus on scientific illustration. At school I contributed to the college daily newspaper as an editorial illustrator, which, like scientific illustration, brings clarity to a subject. This is still a big interest of mine, which means I have a keen eye on what is being shown to explain a system, whatever the field.

All the images here are from the series. The top diagram is used to explain how Newton applied his first law of motion to explain how the inertia of the moon keeps it constantly "falling" around the Earth, while the apple on Earth will fall directly to the ground. Newton is hands down the most brilliant scientist to ever live and the series does a good job of showing his range of interest, and profound, independent thoughts. 

I do not have a problem with the way the series explains his thinking. My eight-year-old was watching this section last night and was able to comprehend his laws of gravity through the graphic explanations and analogies. I do have a problem with how Einstein's special theory of relativity and Hermann Minkowski's space-time is often visually explained. The middle picture here is clear, though exaggerated, if you are discussing how light would bend around objects in space but it fails as a substitute in explaining how it has replaced Newtonian gravity.

While many complicated theories in physics must be explained mathematically, they are often conceived of visually, but they are more visual concepts that do not translate well as visual analogies. This is not so much a fault of the documentary as it is about the scientific community and its inability to properly edit graphics.

The most humorous example of the disconnect between visualizing and visuals is the when leading physicists are asks to draw the strings of String Theory, and they end up drawing simple lines, as pictured in the bottom image.