Tag Archives: physics

Stephen Hawking Returns to CuriosityStream

Today is an exciting day for CuriosityStream, with the release of the second episode of our Emmy® Award-winning Original Series, Stephen Hawking’s Favorite Places (SHFP). This series has not only been a huge success and one of our highest rated programs, but it continues to enthrall our viewers (and our own team!) by sparking curiosity about our Universe.  Working with the award-winning theoretical physicist and bestselling author Stephen Hawking as our tour guide, we couldn’t be in better hands.  We sat down with Ben Bowie of Bigger Bang Productions, executive producer of the series, to learn about what differentiates the sequel from episode one, as well as what the future of the series has in store for viewers.

CuriosityStream (CS): I think it’s fair to say that episode two is even bigger and better that episode one. Talk about the decision to turn the focus toward the biggest question there is: “the theory of everything.”  When Hawking takes us in search of the secret of the Universe, isn’t he really enacting and dramatizing his life’s work?

Ben Bowie (BB): Professor Hawking decided very early in his career to concentrate on the biggest mysteries he could find because, due to his illness, he didn’t know how much time he would have.  Why the Universe is as it is, is indeed the biggest mystery one can contemplate.  We decided this quest would be the subject of SHFP 2 and its follow up, SHFP 3, because only that question encompasses his life’s work.  All the rest follows from that one decision.  So, indeed, it is an attempt to make that journey accessible to as wide an audience as possible.

CS: The “S.S. Hawking” reveals some extraordinary new capabilities in this episode.  What were some of the most exciting and fun sequences for you to create?

BB: Well, believe it or not, it was a difficult decision to allow the SS Hawking to be able to do ‘anything’ – even break the laws of physics!  We weren’t sure if taking the series in that direction was the best thing to do or not.  But, in the end, being a product of Stephen’s imagination, the ship is not bound by the law of physics because it is like the human mind: able to imagine anything it can.  That’s our great superpower, and Stephen has it to a greater extent than most.  Once we had crossed that threshold, we delighted in many of the things we could imagine such a ship doing.  Diving into the Sun, visiting a ruined alien civilization, and getting trapped in a situation that not even the ship could escape were all wonderful scenarios that we had great fun working through.  Getting Stephen to engage in these fantastical episodes, imagining himself in them, was truly a highlight of my career.

CS: There is a sequence where Hawking dives into Venus that is not only visually stunning, but the sequence sends a pretty strong message to climate change deniers.  Whose idea was that?

BB: One thing about Stephen is that he is very passionate about the environment and mankind’s influence on it.  The way that sequence came to be is because during production, the United States withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement.  That decision spurred Stephen to make Venus the first stop on his new journey in this episode.  Planet-wide, catastrophic climate change is not a theory.  Venus – the nearest planet to ours – has undergone such a process, and if we can’t learn from that example, we are simply deluding ourselves.  The challenge was how to make that sequence exciting rather than tub-thumping, and if we succeeded it was thanks to some dazzling extravehicular activity from Commander Hawking himself.

CS: What do you hope people take away from this series?  Having worked with Professor Hawking so many times over the years, what makes this series special?

BB: This series is the closest to the very first idea I had for a show with Stephen, yet was never able to make until the folks at CuriosityStream allowed us at Bigger Bang the creative freedom to try it.  For the first time, we see the world’s most famous scientist engaging with the Universe up close.  That is an incredible rarity!  We also tried very hard to show the scale of things and to reveal how Stephen’s life story has driven his research.  So, I hope this is a new way of communicating science to people of all ages; an exciting adventure but with real (and possibly troubling) science at its heart.  By the end, I hope people will stop arguing about trivial stuff because we should focus on preserving the most amazing thing we know that exists in the Universe – the human race.

CS: SHFP 2 ends with a cliffhanger, but fortunately for viewers, it’s not the last episode in the series!  Without revealing too much, can you give us a hint of what to expect from SHFP 3?

BB: Ah ha! Yes, difficult not to give too much away.  Let’s just say that SHFP 3 takes things to a whole new level, both with what the ship can do and what Hawking can do with it…


Watch the Stephen Hawking’s Favorite Places 2 trailer here:


Stephen Hawking’s Favorite Places 2 is available now, only on CuriosityStream, and episode three will be released on April 19, 2018. You can also watch episode one, which earned CuriosityStream its first Emmy® Award in 2017.

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“Einstein Would Be Beaming…”

It’s a stunning breakthrough in physics, proving once again that Albert Einstein was right. Scientists have announced they’ve detected gravitational waves, the ripples in the fabric of space and time that Einstein predicted 100 years ago.  And the proof was captured in audio form, so we can now actually listen in on the sounds of the universe, hearing two black holes collide more than a billion light years from Earth.

Dr. Sean Carroll is a physicist and a professor at Cal Tech, who describes himself as a theorist who thinks about the fundamental laws of nature, especially as they connect to cosmology.  And, Dr. Carroll is a 2016 Curiosity Retreat Luminary.  He wants to make sure we all truly understand the magnitude of this new discovery.

The following was originally published on Dr. Carroll’s blog, PreposterousUniverse.

ONCE upon a time, there lived a man who was fascinated by the phenomenon of gravity. In his mind he imagined experiments in rocket ships and elevators, eventually concluding that gravity isn’t a conventional “force” at all — it’s a manifestation of the curvature of spacetime. He threw himself into the study of differential geometry, the abstruse mathematics of arbitrarily curved manifolds. At the end of his investigations he had a new way of thinking about space and time, culminating in a marvelous equation that quantified how gravity responds to matter and energy in the universe.

Not being one to rest on his laurels, this man worked out a number of consequences of his new theory.  One was that changes in gravity didn’t spread instantly throughout the universe; they traveled at the speed of light, in the form of gravitational waves.  In later years he would change his mind about this prediction, only to later change it back. Eventually more and more scientists became convinced that this prediction was valid, and worth testing. They launched a spectacularly ambitious program to build a technological marvel of an observatory that would be sensitive to the faint traces left by a passing gravitational wave. Eventually, a century after the prediction was made — a press conference was called.

Chances are that everyone reading this blog post has heard that LIGO, the Laser Interferometric Gravitational-Wave Observatory, officially announced the first direct detection of gravitational waves. Two black holes, caught in a close orbit, gradually lost energy and spiraled toward each other as they emitted gravitational waves, which zipped through space at the speed of light before eventually being detected by our observatories here on Earth. Plenty of other places will give you details on this specific discovery, or tutorials on the nature of gravitational waves, including in user-friendly comic/video form.


What I want to do here is to make sure, in case there was any danger, that nobody loses sight of the extraordinary magnitude of what has been accomplished here. We’ve become a bit blasé about such things: physics makes a prediction, it comes true, yay. But we shouldn’t take it for granted; successes like this reveal something profound about the core nature of reality.

Some guy scribbles down some symbols in an esoteric mixture of Latin, Greek, and mathematical notation. Scribbles originating in his tiny, squishy human brain. (Here are what some of those scribbles look like, in my own incredibly sloppy handwriting.) Other people (notably Rainer Weiss, Ronald Drever, and Kip Thorne), on the basis of taking those scribbles extremely seriously, launch a plan to spend hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of decades. They concoct an audacious scheme to shoot laser beams at mirrors to look for modulated displacements of less than a millionth of a billionth of a centimeter — smaller than the diameter of an atomic nucleus. Meanwhile other people looked at the sky and tried to figure out what kind of signals they might be able to see, for example from the death spiral of black holes a billion light-years away. You know, black holes: universal regions of death where, again according to elaborate theoretical calculations, the curvature of spacetime has become so pronounced that anything entering can never possibly escape. And still other people built the lasers and the mirrors and the kilometers-long evacuated tubes and the interferometers and the electronics and the hydraulic actuators and so much more, all because they believed in those equations. And then they ran LIGO (and other related observatories) for several years, then took it apart and upgraded to Advanced LIGO, finally reaching a sensitivity where you would expect to see real gravitational waves if all that fancy theorizing was on the right track.

And there they were. On the frikkin’ money.


Our universe is mind-bogglingly vast, complex, and subtle. It is also fantastically, indisputably knowable.

I got a hard time a few years ago for predicting that we would detect gravitational waves within five years. And indeed, the track record of such predictions has been somewhat spotty. Outside Kip Thorne’s office you can find this record of a lost bet — after he predicted that we would see them before 1988. (!)



But this time around I was pretty confident. The existence of overly-optimistic predictions in the past doesn’t invalidate the much-better predictions we can make with vastly updated knowledge. Advanced LIGO represents the first time when we would have been more surprised not to see gravitational waves than to have seen them. And I believed in those equations.

I don’t want to be complacent about it, however. The fact that Einstein’s prediction has turned out to be right is an enormously strong testimony to the power of science in general, and physics in particular, to describe our natural world. Einstein didn’t know about black holes; he didn’t even know about lasers, although it was his work that laid the theoretical foundations for both ideas. He was working at a level of abstraction that reached as far as he could (at the time) to the fundamental basis of things, how our universe works at the deepest of levels. And his theoretical insights were sufficiently powerful and predictive that we could be confident in testing them a century later. This seemingly effortless insight that physics gives us into the behavior of the universe far away and under utterly unfamiliar conditions should never cease to be a source of wonder.

We’re nowhere near done yet, of course. We have never observed the universe in gravitational waves before, so we can’t tell for sure what we will see, but plausible estimates predict between one-half and several hundred events per year. Hopefully, the success of LIGO will invigorate interest in other ways of looking for gravitational waves, including at very different wavelengths. Here’s a plot focusing on three regimes: LIGO and its cousins on the right, the proposed space-based observatory LISA in the middle, and pulsar-timing arrays (using neutron stars throughout the galaxy as a giant gravitational-wave detector) on the left. Colorful boxes are predicted sources; solid lines are the sensitivities of different experiments. Gravitational-wave astrophysics has just begun; asking us what we will find is like walking up to Galileo and asking him what else you could discover with telescopes other than moons around Jupiter.


For me, the decade of the 2010’s opened with five big targets in particle physics/gravitation/cosmology:

  1. Discover the Higgs boson.
  2. Directly detect gravitational waves.
  3. Directly observe dark matter.
  4. Find evidence of inflation (e.g. tensor modes) in the CMB.
  5. Discover a particle not in the Standard Model.

The decade is about half over, and we’ve done two of them! Keep up the good work, observers and experimentalists, and the 2010’s will go down as a truly historic decade in physics.

This blog was originally published at PreposterousUniverse.com.

You can explore more about the origins of the universe on CuriosityStream.  Our 2 part series, The Ultimate Formula, details the journey as physicists search for a blueprint of the universe in the form of a single mathematical formula.  And, go inside Monster Black Holesin an episode from our Cosmic Front series.

And, our original, short form series A Curious World explores the reality of black holes:



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5 Fascinating Moments From The 2015 Curiosity Retreat

  1. David McCullough’s inspiring story of discovery, curiosity, genius, and sense of purpose. The master historian told the story of Orville and Wilbur Wright. But this was more than a timeline of the brothers’ great invention and the birth of aviation. We all covered that back in history class. This was the story of personal drive, commitment, family and an intellectual curiosity that never relented. And when the incomparable David McCullough told the story, it became about more than the Wright Brothers. It was an inspiring message of innovation, teamwork, and personal character that we can all strive for in every aspect of our lives.
  1. Dr. Brian Greene, illuminating what we know and still don’t know about the nature of our own reality. Particles, waves, probability – these are the core elements of quantum mechanics, as explained to us by the renown physicist. Dr. Greene’s animations allowed us all to understand the complex theories as a physicist would. We visualized how these important waves of probability would combine, or coalesce, and how the particles that make up our universe act like these waves. But how do we go from the spread out waves of probability to the definite reality of our experience? That is the puzzle, he says, and in his own words, the mystery is exciting, frightening, thrilling. But Dr. Greene is working on solving it.
  1. A grammar lesson, of sorts, from political theorist Dr. Danielle Allen. In particular, the misplacement of a very important period. You know the beginning of the second sentence from the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” There is it is, our guarantee of these profoundly American rights and ideals. But Dr. Allen argued the sentence doesn’t end there. A misplaced period in the very first ever printing of the document led to a significant misinterpretation. Dr. Allen theorized that our nation’s founders put equal importance on our individual rights as well as our responsibility to create good government that ensures the rights of everyone. The document is 1,337 words, and Dr. Allen challenged us to read every one of them. Our summer reading assignment from the Harvard Professor.
  1. Rick Smolan, boggling our minds with facts such as these: More pictures have been taken in the last 2 months than since the dawn of photography. And our 15th century ancestors experienced the same amount of information in their entire lifetimes as we do now in one single day. The revolution of big data is here. Smolan, a journalist and photographer, focused his lens on the technologies that impact our daily lives, and their impact on our privacy, and our future — from marketing strategies to lure shoppers into big box stores to crisis response in disaster zones. Smolan described the explosion of data as helping our planet grow a nervous system with each of us evolving into human sensors. For better or worse is yet to be decided.
  1. Dr. Art Benjamin, the amazing Mathemagician, calculating the square of 97,437. In his head. Without a calculator. You try it. Enough said!

Our 2015 Curiosity Retreat guests also heard deep dives from several other Luminaries on topics such as The Creative Brain, Conscious Capitalism, and The Wonders of Our Oceans. All of our 2015 Curiosity Retreat lectures are available now on CuriosityStream. What will you find fascinating?

Vanessa Gillon

Coordinating Producer, CuriosityStream


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