Tales From The Industry XXVII – Light Speed

Here we go again! Tonight sees another new episode of the new series of The Universe on the History Channel (you can watch it as a warm up to The Atom Smashers, on PBS), and the episode is all about the speed of light! I’ve no idea how this one will turn out, but for my segments we did some rather fun things to illustrate some of the key concepts. The main idea is that the laws of physics are rather different from ordinary Newtonian/Galilean ones when you are moving at an appreciable fraction of the speed the light. This is what we learned from Einstein’s Special Relativity. How do you illustrate this for a TV viewing audience? Well, one way is to imagine what would happen if the speed of light was a lot closer to everyday speeds. Then you could illustrate some of the effects in a fun way.

Well, one thing led to another and somehow (after a lot of email discussions of the physics with Darryl Rehr, the writer/director) it ended up that I was supposed to do some cycling. I thought it would just involve me pottering about on the Brompton for a while, but I was wrong. There’d be lots of cycling, and with special equipment. The idea was to do it on a cycling track – using those special bikes that have no brakes, no gears, and on one of those proper tracks with lots of undulating surfaces with lots of steep parts that you’ve seen during the Olympics or other situation. Wow! I agreed to this, swallowing my disappointment that I could not use the Brompton for the shoot…

Well, to cut a long story short, after a merciful cancellation of the first scheduled June shoot due to it being one of the hottest days of the year, we did a shoot at the Encino velodrome. I had a short session of training (by a professional cyclist) to cycle the special bike and on the amazing track – going at high speed on the super-steep part where you’re almost horizontal is just fantastic! – and then we spent some time filming various things for use in the show. light speed episodeThere was a rather interesting gentleman with white hair and a beard (looking a lot like Uncle Sam’s cousin) who played the role of an older version of one of the producers in a fun segment about time dilation and the twin paradox (you know, the one about time running dramatically differently for one person going off on a journey at high speed and returning as compared to someone who stayed at home. The latter person ages faster). He was a charming fellow, who spends a lot of time doing pen and pencil drawings of cars between shoots. He showed lots of them to me while we waited between our shooting sessions.

I hope that session (the twin paradox one) is used, because it was a lot of fun to do. Rather than go on about it further (and because I don’t know what was done with all the footage) I’ll let you see how it all is put together… it involved me doing an awful lot of cycling, and in ordinary clothing on a hot day I’ll say, so they’d better have used it! Here are some photos:

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(Shots from the cycling shoot session for the Light Speed episode. Click for larger view. The motorcycle with the camera used to move with the bike while shooting me cycling along.)

Well, I won’t go on about this longer. I’ll just encourage you to have a look at the episode tonight (Tuesday) at 9:00pm E/P (8:00pm C) on the History Channel. I do hope it turned out ok and that you enjoy it and maybe learn some fun physics from it. Let me know what you think.



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6 Responses to Tales From The Industry XXVII – Light Speed

  1. Clifford says:

    Well, first ad break and I’m really impressed. So far they’ve done a great survey of what it means to have a finite speed of light, and how when you get to astronomical scales, its remarkable speed seems quite slow. Then they’ve gone from that to how it tells the history of the universe… how it gives us a time machine to probe the origins of the universe….. all good. Very good indeed. I’m really quite pleased with this so far…. Highly recommendable. So far.


  2. Clifford says:

    Wow. Only 15 minutes left to go and (except for a few inaccuracies that I’m not worried about) I have to say that Darryl and his team have really nailed it. This is a very good survey of the physics of the speed of light, nicely done in all aspects. Some of the key physics that I discussed with Darryl (and this and other physics that I’m sure that the other contributors discussed with him too) has been carefully brought out and nicely illustrated. This is a great example of the *collaborative* mode I’ve been talking about… partnership between the scientists and the filmmakers to get a really nice show.

    Guess what? Sadly, nobody in the science community will pay much attention to this film because there’s no controversy. Little to complain or get all upset about. Pity. If we want to see more good products, we need to let the filmmakers know when they get it right at least as often (probably more) as when they don’t.


  3. Belizean says:

    [blockquote]Sadly, nobody in the science community will pay much attention to this film because there’s no controversy. [/blockquote]

    I’m sorry that I didn’t catch it. [It’s amazing how quickly nearly 100% of any TV watching I do has switched to on-demand streaming downloads.]

    Any, it doesn’t have to be controversial to receive attention as a useful educational tool. If it’s really well done, you will be immortalized in countless basic physics classes yet convened, as lazy or unprepared professors use the DVD of this episode as an emergency back-up.

  4. Sara Tompson says:

    Clifford! Kevin and I are now recording “The Universe” and enjoyed it, getting an especial kick out of your faster than light bike ride! The illustration of your tennis ball throw’s progress vs. the headlight beam was very well done, graspable.
    We do think there’re almost too many FX in the show, especially the “whooosh” sounds, but probably holds the interest of younger more gaming people than us.
    I like the SoCal (well, NorCal too) focus of the scientist commentators.
    All for now, basically wanted to say how the bike ride was so you and also a great physics illustration! (Plus your direct into the camera commentary was nicely done as well.)

  5. Thor says:

    Enjoyed the show quite a bit. Was afraid it might turn out like the one on parallel universes a few days ago. But it was really good. Congrats!

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