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Making Waves: The New Physics - Newton Revised 

As modern theoretical physics becomes more ambiguous in nature, the Western lay public increasingly confuses advances in engineering with pure science.






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Episode cast overview:
James Burke ...
Himself - Host


As modern theoretical physics becomes more ambiguous in nature, the Western lay public increasingly confuses advances in engineering with pure science.

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Release Date:

14 May 1985 (UK)  »

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Positively electric, or maybe negatively.
30 October 2012 | by (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

All the episodes of this series are informative and entertaining, but this one was especially interesting to me. I have some slight background in electronics, and the subject here is electricity. I've always marveled at electricity. When I was a kid, I wondered what it was. Then I learned that it was -- incredibly -- electrons skipping at almost the speed of light from one atom to another. And I'd always thought that atoms were bound together so strongly that you couldn't change them in any way -- except maybe by splitting them apart in a bomb. And here they were, blithely trading electrons with one another.

There's another reason I kind of like this episode. The two contemporaries who dealt with electricity and magnetism in the middle of the 19th century were Michael Faraday and, a bit later, James Clerk Maxwell. And it's always a comfort to think of Maxwell, a guy with a noble name, as a mathematical genius, while Faraday was nothing more than a tinkerer. The fact that it's not true doesn't vitiate the pleasure of thinking it is.

It's a fine episode too because Burke is so candid about Thomas Alva Edison, a great American hero, so idolized by Henry Ford (another great American hero), that Ford had Edison's entire laboratory -- including the building itself and the tree outside -- carted off from New Jersey and transplanted near Ford's factory in Detroit.

Edison was at least as much an entrepreneur as an inventor. Most of the experimental work was done by Edison's fifteen assistants. Edison knew little of mathematics or theory. His organization invented things of commercial value. As Burke puts it, Edison had three principles. (1) Get the money. (2) Find the market. (3) Sell the product. There's an amusing MGM biography of "Edison the Man," starring Spencer Tracy as a kindly disposed but persistent seeker after Truth. In the end, Tracy gets to invent the light bulb.

Frankly, it went a little fast for me at time. Unlike James Clerk Maxwell, I am not a mathematician. The very best I could do in algebra was a B Plus. I'll give James Clerk his due but I blame the damned Arabs for inventing the technique in the first place. The rest of us could have gotten along quite well even if the Arabs had not invented the zero.

Anyway, Burke winds up with Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. You can measure where an electron is, or you can measure how fast it's moving, but not both at the same time. Furthermore, the very act of measuring it changes it because you have to hit the electron with light and that knocks it around a little. Of course, this applies to human behavior as well. The fact that we know we are being watched more or less forces us to behave in a way we might not if we were alone.

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