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An Especially Elegant Universe

Behind the scenes of the NOVA production on string theory


Attached to wires and blown by a wind machine, Briane Greene 'flies' through the air against a green screen background, replaced in the editing process by footage of a city street scene. Photo Credit: Andrea Cross for WGBH
Photo Credit: Andrea Cross for WGBH
Attached to wires and blown by a wind machine, Briane Greene 'flies' through the air against a green screen background, replaced in the editing process by footage of a city street scene.
A Calabi-Yau shape: a two dimensional visualization of the six additional spatial dimensions required by string theory.
A Calabi-Yau shape: a two dimensional visualization of the six additional spatial dimensions required by string theory.

Joe McMaster, producer, director, and writer of Nova's The Elegant Universe, is not a physicist.

Fortunately, he had the patient help of the show's star and narrator, physicist Brian Greene, as he put together the PBS production delving into string theory.

McMaster relied heavily on Greene's book, also titled The Elegant Universe, throughout the production of the program, which was filmed on locations ranging from downtown Manhattan to a piano factory to the desert of New Mexico.

Much of the program required intense cooperation of camera crews and computer experts who melded live action shots with sound stage footage and animation. Some were high-tech interpretations of illustrations from Greene's book.

Others required decidedly low-tech, on-the-spot improvisation. "When we were filming at White Sands," says McMaster, "we wanted to show how an attractive force could be demonstrated by two people throwing a baseball back and forth." The result was a scene in which Greene apparently plays a game of catch with himself.

Many of the most striking images in the program, however, required Greene to recite his lines on an empty sound stage, with animation added later. For one segment, the crew even suspended Greene on wires over a wind machine to simulate the intrepid physicist in flight.

It's clear from McMaster's descriptions of the multidimensional universes, quantum fluctuations, and gravitational wells depicted in the program that his work on the show has given him a profound, intuitive appreciation of string theory.

It's an appreciation that he hoped was imparted to PBS viewers when The Elegant Universe began airing October 28.

—Adapted from PhysicsCentral.Com



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