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Big Ideas
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Introduction About the Institute
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Imagine sitting down for a one-on-one discussion about the theory of relativity with Albert Einstein himself. Today, the intellectual descendents of Einstein can be found at work at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Comprising some of the world's most visionary thinkers, these dynamic scholars are mapping the frontiers of knowledge, their research driven not by commercial applications, but by a passion to unravel the most puzzling enigmas of life itself.

Now BIG IDEAS, an unprecedented four-part miniseries, gives viewers the opportunity to meet these remarkable individuals and to hear them discuss their work, experiences, visions, and obsessions in their own words. Hosted by science journalist Ira Flatow, BIG IDEAS premieres in April 2003 on public television (check local listings).

Through intimate and penetrating discussions about science, art, history, mathematics, physics, and cosmology, BIG IDEAS reveals the hearts and minds of today's most ardent theorists. The building blocks of matter, the evolution of language, the history of Islamic art, the origins of terrorism, the peculiar characteristics of prime numbers, and the super-string theory that may just explain the existence of the universe are only a few of the varied subjects discussed.

Each of the four programs is loosely organized around a theme or area of study.

1. Exploring the Cosmos. The opening episode of BIG IDEAS probes the mysteries of outer space. Ira Flatow speaks first with Freeman Dyson, who takes an imaginative leap into the future to discuss the possiblities of extraterrestrial life and his predictions for how human beings will colonize the solar system. Young astrophysicist Sara Seagar raises intriguing questions about planets outside of our solar system. Veteran astrophysicist John Bahcall, winner of the National Medal of Science, talks about neutrinos, spinning particles that are streaming through us by the billions every second. Finally, astrophysicist Feryal Ozel shares her passion for two of the most fascinating types of cosmic phenomena: neutron stars and black holes.

2. Einstein's Dream. This episode of BIG IDEAS is an homage to Albert Einstein, the man and his legacy, focusing on the attempts by physicists, mathematicians and theorists to derive a unifying theory to explain all the forces of nature in the same terms. This "Grand Unified Theory" is a goal over which Einstein toiled for the last 30 years of his life. Theoretical physicist Nathan Seiberg continues the labor with his research on string theories in various dimensions and in experimental particle physics. Edward Witten, named by TIME magazine as one of the 25 most influential Americans, and arguably the premier mathematical physicist of our time, talks about his pioneering work in M-theory, which may unify all the various branches of string theory. Theoretical physicist Juan Maldacena has stunned the physics community with his far-reaching ideas about gravity, particle physics, and string theory. Freeman Dyson returns to provide an alternate, skeptical assessment of string theory.

3. A New History of the World. This episode approaches the humanities from several provocative thresholds. The program opens with a short documentary about Kirk Varnedoe, the Museum of Modern Art's former chief curator of painting and sculpture. Flatow speaks with political philosopher Michael Walzer, who outlines his ideas about "just" and "unjust" war and the origins and changing nature of terrorism. A second short documentary turns the spotlight on classical historian Glen Bowersock, who has been studying ancient mosaics -- in particular a collection uncovered in Jordan. Finally, Flatow talks to distinguished Islamic art historian Oleg Grabar, who discusses the artistic significance of Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock.

4. Thinking Big. The final episode of BIG IDEAS begins with a mini-documentary exploring the history of game theory, which got its start at the Institute. The documentary tells the story of how the lives of two towering geniuses -- John Forbes Nash, Jr., and the late John von Neumann -- came to intersect. Nash also talks about the acclaimed Hollywood film, A BEAUTIFUL MIND. Martin Nowak, who has been applying mathematical thinking to biology, discusses the evolution and cultural adaptation of language. A second mini-documentary highlights the work of Enrico Bombieri, a pioneer in the quest for a better understanding of prime numbers. Freeman Dyson makes a final appearance in the series with a look back at his work on Project Orion, a revolutionary idea to design a nuclear-powered spacecraft. A documentary short features the Institute's first official artist-in-residence pianist, Robert Taub, as he performs passages from Beethoven's piano sonatas. The series concludes with an interview with cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who has been considering questions of ethnic diversity and its implications in the modern world.

About BIG IDEAS producer Larkin McPhee Photo of Larkin Mcphee. Photo by Heather Fenske

Producing BIG IDEAS offered me the rare opportunity to meet and work with some of the great minds of this century. To stand before Jackson Pollock's "One" and have a world renowned art historian expound on the impact of this modern masterpiece was a true privilege. It was equally extraordinary to look back in time through the eyes of historians and imagine the early days of Islam before anyone could have predicted this religion's meteoric rise. One scholar made me see failure in an altogether positive light. He and others have also made me believe that it is just a matter of time before we seek out a new frontier in the cosmos. I never would have regarded mathematics as a work of art until I spent time with a mathematician who sees numbers in a majestic light. More than anything, this series has deepened my appreciation for the cross-fertilization of ideas and the power of dreaming big.
Photo by Heather Fenske
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