PBS Series: Big Ideas

In 2003, Channel Thirteen/WNET New York produced and aired a series of documentary films exploring ideas currently studied by some of the Faculty and visiting scholars at the Institute for Advanced Study. Through discussions about science, art, history, mathematics, physics, and cosmology, the series examined questions about the fundamental building blocks of matter, the evolution of language, the history of art, the origins of terrorism, the characteristics of prime numbers, and super-string theory, among others.

For the greater part of the 20th century, the Institute has been the home of some of the world’s most brilliant scholars - a community where intellectual inquiry and theoretical research is pursued in an environment of excellence. Into the 21st Century, the Institute’s mission continues to be the advancement of knowledge and the deepening of understanding across a broad range of the humanities, natural sciences and social science. Its nearly 5,000 former Members hold positions of intellectual leadership in the United States and throughout the world. More than a dozen Nobel laureates have been Institute Faculty or Members, and many more are winners of the Wolf or MacArthur prizes. Thirty-two out of forty-three Fields Medalists, the Nobel equivalent for mathematicians, have been associated with the Institute.

Ira Flatow, host of National Public Radio’s Science Friday, speaks with Institute Faculty and Emeriti John Bahcall, Enrico Bombieri, Glen Bowersock, Freeman Dyson, Clifford Geertz, Oleg Grabar, Juan Maldacena, Nathan Seiberg, the late Kirk Varnedoe, Michael Walzer, and Edward Witten. Former Institute Members John Forbes Nash, Jr., Feryal Ozel, and Sara Seagar are also interviewed.

The Series originally aired in April 2003. The opening episode, “Exploring the Cosmos,” considers the mysteries of space. Episode 2, “Einstein’s Dream,” focuses on Einstein’s intellectual legacy and the attempts by physicists and mathematicians to derive a “Grand Unified Theory” that will explain all the forces of nature in the same terms. Episode 3, “A New History of the World,” looks at ideas in the humanities. Episode 4, “Thinking Big,” begins with a mini-documentary exploring the history of game theory.


“Disinterested intellectual curiosity is the life-blood of civilization,” said the English historian G. M. Trevelyan (1876-1962). BIG IDEAS addresses the American public’s curiosity about ideas at the frontier of our knowledge in the fields of astronomy, physics, and humanities. The series gives viewers the opportunity to meet remarkable individuals and to hear them discuss their work in their own words.

BIG IDEAS is a production of Thirteen/WNET New York and has been made possible by the generous support of the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, Strachan and Vivian Donnelley, the Ambrose Monell Foundation and Rosalind P. Walter.

For detailed information about each of the episodes of BIG IDEAS, visit www.thirteen.org/bigideas/.