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PLEASE NOTE: Michael D's is currently in READ ONLY MODE. Anything submitted will simply not be written to the database.
Lots of stuff is still broken, but at least reviews can now be looked up and read.
The Elegant Universe (2003)

The Elegant Universe (2003)

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Released 7-Apr-2005

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Documentary Menu Animation
Rating Rated E
Year Of Production 2003
Running Time 150
RSDL / Flipper Dual Layered Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Julia Cort
Joseph McMaster
Roadshow Home Entertainment
Starring Julia Cort
Brian Greene
Joseph McMaster
Michael Duff
Brian Greene
Michael B. Green
Walter Lewin
Amanda Peet
John Schwarz
Leonard Susskind
Cumrun Vafa
Gabriele Veneziano
Steven Weinberg
Case Amaray-Transparent-Secure Clip
RPI $29.95 Music Asche & Spencer
Ed Tomney

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.75:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio Unknown Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English for the Hearing Impaired Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

   About 20 years ago Stephen Hawking published the best selling book A Brief History of Time. Like many others I bought the book and sat down in a quiet corner to understand the mysteries of the universe. Like just as many others I got to page 20, started again and eventually finished up none the wiser. It is no surprise that later editions were further illustrated and explained to try to bring home the message.

    The bottom line is that cosmology and quantum physics are difficult concepts to grasp. One is too large and the other too small. Over the years others have also tried to simplify these difficult concepts.

    The Elegant Universe is a three part documentary dealing with string theory. Presented by noted physicist Brian Greene , and based on his book of the same name, it details the history of large and small scale physics using a combination of talking heads, recreations and some computer effects.

    Underpinning the whole of the show is the simple premise that throughout history physicists have tried to come up with a single Theory of Everything, a single equation that explains how the whole of existence works. Essentially, the problem is that the general theory of relativity (e=mc2) developed by Einstein seemed to fit when applied to large objects such as planets. However, it did not apply to the behaviour of sub-atomic particles, a branch of physics known as Quantum Mechanics. In fact, neither theory could explain each other. As the series shows, thinkers like Einstein spent most of their lives trying to unify the fields without success.

    The program looks at the different forces, being gravity, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force to show how scientists struggled and invariably failed to come up with the right equation for unification. Hints of a new theory had been trickling through the scientific community since 1968 with the work of Gabriele Veneziano. However, it wasn't until 1984 that Schwartz and Green found a theory which encompassed all four forces. At that time String Theory (sometimes called Super String Theory) was christened The Theory of Everything.

    So what exactly is String Theory? Well, some scientists believe that at a level beneath the sub-atomic particle the universe is composed of vibrating strings of energy (hence the elegance of the title). These strings are very small. In fact, one scientists suggests that if an atom was enlarged to the size of our solar system then the individual strings would be no larger than a single tree.

    Of course, this presents all kinds of problems. Strings are at a size where there is no reasonable prospect of being able to see them now or in the distant future. Therefore, there is no way to prove or disprove that they exist. This leads one of the interviewed scientists to remark that physics is about provable experiments. Unprovable experiments belong in the realms of philosophy.

    The three episodes, each roughly 50 minutes, are as follows:

Episode 1 - Einstein's Dream shows the development of Einstein's general theory of relativity and the origin of the theory of quantum mechanics

Episode 2 - String's the Thing shows the origin of string theory and its regular disappearance from plain sight into the backwaters of science. In a fascinating twist the origin of the theory emerged from a 200 year old mathematical formula. After the excitement of the discovery of this theory problems began to set in when there emerged no less than 5 different and competing string theories!

Episode 3 - Welcome to the Eleventh Dimension examines the final refinements as well as the ongoing work being put into the understanding of string theory. In 1995, Princeton scholar Edward Witten (a physicist other physicists think is clever!) found a way to unite the 5 string theories into one cohesive theory known as "M Theory", although no one really knows what the "M" stands for!

    The three episodes contain some element of repetition and generally fall into the popular science category. Greene is a fun and obviously committed narrator and the filmmakers try to inject as much humour into the proceedings as possible with jokes and CGI sequences including the strange Quantum Cafe where nothing behaves as it should!

    I must say that whilst I did my best to keep a handle on the physics at work there is a point where it becomes difficult to understand or comprehend string theory. This is not such a problem of the show, which does its best to render things in layman's terms, but there is something in the nature of the arcane identity of string theory itself that makes it hard to hold onto. As the final episode ends scientists in Europe are working towards finalisation of a super collider which may yet prove the existence of strings.

    Despite being at times head-blowing there is something invaluable about this program as it tries to make understandable some of the most complex mysteries of the universe. Using computer animation to highlight otherwise complex points is one good way in which it tries to connect with the non-scientist. It is no surprise that Witten himself described string theory as: "A part of 21st Century physics that fell by chance into the 20th Century". This is not a show to watch after a hard day's work but if you give the documentary devoted attention (and perhaps repeated viewings) it amply repays the investment of time.

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Transfer Quality


    The Elegant Universe is presented on DVD in a 1.75:1 transfer. It is 16x9 enhanced. Finding information about the original aspect ratio has been difficult. It appears that the show was shot on 16 mm for television broadcast and therefore the aspect ratio may well be right.

    The actual transfer quality for the DVD is a mixed success. The decision to use computer animation was a good one from the point of view of keeping things interesting and fun. It does mean, however, that in some scenes (for example where Brian Greene is talking to a double of himself) there is a noticeable loss in quality.

    In fact, the image for the whole series is a little soft and lacks crispness. This is not a surprise if it has been blown-up from a 16mm print without any digital enhancement.

    There are no other real problems with the transfer. Aliasing is minor and there are only a few artefacts to be seen. Skin tone seemed reasonably accurate.

    There are English sub-titles for the hearing impaired which seemed to give a good account of the on-screen dialogue

    This is probably a documentary better suited to a smaller screen.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    The Elegant Universe comes with one soundtrack only, being English Dolby Digital 2.0 (224 Kb/s). The sound is clear and understandable both for the voiceover and also the interview segments. The music for the show provides a good backing without being memorable. There are some nice excerpts from Bach's Cello Suites used as an analogy to the vibrating strings of the universe.

    Audio sync seems fine. The lack of surround support is not a problem.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


    The DVD does not come with any real extras. The menu system is slightly confusing as it presents a picture from each episode. If you click on a picture however, you get something of a trailer for the episode.

    I would point out, however, that the web site for this program is an excellent source of further information with Making of sections and interviews. It did not greatly trouble me that this information was not on the DVD as the web site can be more regularly updated with information about further research.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    The Region 1 DVD appears to have a number of extra features not on the Region 4 release including:


    The Elegant Universe is a bold attempt to describe some of the most difficult problems of theoretical physics in a manner that can be understood by the lay person. It is still no easy task and despite the best intentions including some fun animation and some repetition of key points, string theory remains complex and at times hard to grasp. My feeling is that this is the closest we will get to a clear understanding of string theory for the layman.

    The DVD and the show were produced for educational purposes and the transfer is uninspiring as to visual quality although perfectly adequate in sound terms.

    There are no extras.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Trevor Darge (read my bio)
Monday, September 25, 2006
Review Equipment
DVDOnkyo DV-SP300, using Component output
DisplayNEC PlasmaSync 42" MP4 1024 x 768. This display device has not been calibrated. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver.
AmplificationOnkyo TX-SR600 with DD-EX and DTS-ES
SpeakersJBL Simply Cinema SCS178 5.1

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