As one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists in the world, Stephen Hawking writes books that can intimidate those among us who barely passed Physics for Poets or Rocks for Jocks. In A Brief History of Time, he tackles questions like “How did the universe begin?” and “Does time always flow forward?” while the rest of us distract ourselves from these daunting unknowns with Internet cat videos.
The latest of the Guardian MadeSimple animation series presents “Stephen Hawking’s Big Ideas Made Simple,” which condenses his grandest theories into a 2.5-minute video. In the playful cut-paper animation, a smiling cartoon Hawking rides his wheelchair like a chariot through space with his colleague, Roger Penrose. They slip into a black hole, where lots of matter—including lamps, light bulbs, and flashlights—gets crumpled up by a god-like pair of hands into a point of infinite density called a “singularity.” At the edge of the black hole, pairs of particles promise, “I’ll never forget you!” as one falls in and the other escapes.
“Our work is often about trying to say more with less—finding the quickest, most elegant way to communicate often very complex information,” says Dan Porter, creative director at Scriberia, the animation company that designed the short. “We're trying to create visuals that will help people retain information, so sometimes the wildest ideas are the ones that are going to stick.” He points out that the Hawking animation is rendered in “stuff you’d find in any elementary school." The lessons are articulated in very accessible language and tone by narrator and scriptwriter Alok Jha.
Paul Boyd, a Guardian multimedia editor, says that the video's fusing of art and design with science "appeals to the emotional side of the brain, not just the rational. Learning is easier when you’re laughing.”
He hopes MadeSimple videos will make viewers “more inclined to tackle the subject matter presented in a bigger format." Maybe this is a teaser that will move people to go check out A Brief History of Time at the library. Or at the very least, it's captivating attention spans beyond the original 2.5 minutes. Boyd says users are watching the animation three, four, or five times to absorb the details of the theories presented—which actually can’t really be made simple, because they’re not. Hawking’s complex mathematical formulas are also written out in detail in the video.
And Boyd hints that it's not all aimed at the 101 crowd, adding "There are science in-jokes throughout, making it appeal to a more advanced audience as well."
Be sure to catch the E.T. reference at the end.