NOVA: Einstein's Big Idea

Cover of DVD for PBS NOVA's special Einstein's Big Idea
The cover of the DVD for PBS Nova's special Einstein's Big Idea. PBS/Nova

The Bottom Line

This NOVA presentation does an excellent job of explaining not only the science well, but also the historical context of Einstein's brilliant insight into the relationship between mass and energy, in the form of the equation E = mc2. From the time of the French revolution to the splitting of the atom - a span of nearly two centuries - the history of matter, energy, and how they relate are explored in this fascinating documentary, with excellent re-enactments.

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  • Thoroughly covers topics related to Einstein's famous equation
  • Provides a historical perspective for the discovery
  • Exceptional acting and narration


  • Some of the dialogue is a bit awkward, though only occasionally
  • Chronology of events depicted may throw off viewers unaware with the history of science
  • The DVD appears to contain no special features


  • 2 hours episode of the PBS science series NOVA
  • Narrated by actor James Lithgow.
  • Based on E=mc by David Bodanis
  • NOTE: This review is based on the show as viewed on PBS itself, not on the DVD

Guide Review - NOVA: Einstein's Big Idea

Though the special bears Einstein's name, the show goes well beyond a mere discussion of Einstein's work in discovering the mass-energy relationship inherent in the calculation E = mc2. It clearly demonstrates that scientific discoveries are not made in a vacuum, but instead build upon the work that has come beforehand.

In this case, the documentary goes into detail on the discoveries related to mass and energy which were needed so that

  • Michael Faraday (and, briefly, James Clerk Maxwell) - force fields, electromagnetism, and light
  • Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier - conservation of mass
  • Emilie du Chatelet - demonstrated that Leibnitz's energy calculations, not Newton's, were correct
  • Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner - splitting of the atom

From 1740 (when du Chatelet published her Institutions of Physics) to the splitting of the atom in 1938, the show spans two centuries in telling the story of this amazing insight.

One issue I had was the chronological structure of the show. Farraday's story is told before Lavoisier's, and both before Chatelet's, even though this is the opposite of the historical order. It can be somewhat disjointed unless the viewer pays close attention.

The actors do well in their roles, especially the key role of Einstein. His portrayal of the twenty-five year Einstein was spot on, including several scenes showing his disregard for the need to attend classes or pay attention to his instructors. The other characters are also excellent, bringing to life the lesser-known characters.

This is a documentary, though, and the actors are not the only players in the story. Author David Bodanis, physicists Michio Kaku and S. James Gates Jr., along with various other scientists and biographers, provide key insights along the way. The ideas are key, and everyone works together to present them well.