Tuesday, October 18, 2016

My Favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson: Jim Al-Khalili

Recently I discovered Professor Jim Al-Khalili and his fantastic series of BBC science documentaries.

Born 1962 in Baghdad to an Iraqi father and English mother, the family permanently relocated to the UK in 1979. Now involved with teaching and research as a professor of physics at the University of Surrey, Al-Khalili's style is highly reminiscent of NDT's. By this I mean that he's able to break down incredibly abstract, complex, and often completely counter-intuitive concepts into entertaining, easily understood explanations that never feel dumbed-down.

He's funny, too, in an understated, intellectual, British kind of way, and the material never comes across as overly academic or dry. Production value is through the roof, with beautiful art direction, writing, pacing, and score, all serving to treat epic subject matters with an appropriate level of scale, atmosphere and magic.

Watching through most of these videos over the past few weeks, I now have what feels like a very solid layman's understanding of how the universe works on the smallest, subatomic level, and to say that this has shifted my perspective is a huge understatement.

This episode is a good place to start I think, as it appeals directly to those with an interest in engines and mechanical engineering. With the embedded video above, I've skipped ahead about 10 minutes to a scene shot in the Crossness Pumping Station, a stunningly ornate and pretty temple to steam power and the promise of the Industrial Revolution.

In a nutshell, within it Al-Khalili explains how the search for more efficient steam engines led directly to the discovery of thermodynamics, itself the key to our modern understanding of everything. I can't recommend it enough.

Other series-within-a-series episodes to consider include Everything and Nothing, Chemistry: A Volatile History, Atom, Shock and Awe: The Story of Electricity and The Secrets of Quantum Physics. There's many more to choose from, most of which can be found on YouTube or even torrented.

Just started reading his book Quantum: A guide for the Perplexed. Thus far I remain mostly perplexed, but endlessly fascinated.

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