Last Sunday, at the San Francisco International Film Festival, I saw the world premiere of a fascinating and disturbing documentary, We Believe in Dinosaurs, about the building of the Ark Encounter, a $102 million pseudoscientific tourist attraction in Williamstown, Kentucky. (You can read about the Encounter’s 2016 opening and about Ken Ham, the “creationist” zealot behind the endeavor, here.)
The film doesn’t yet have a distributor, so I can’t tell you where it will play next. What I can tell you is the story of 137 Films, the production company that made We Believe in Dinosaurs. It’s one of the best how-they-got-that-name stories I’ve read, and certainly one of the best numeral-as-name stories.
137 Films logo
137 Films, based in Chicago, makes films “that promote science through storytelling”; previous releases include The Believers, about the quixotic quest for cold fusion; and The Atom Smashers, about the international search for the Higgs Boson. So where does “137” come from? A street number? A temperature? The number of an atomic element?
No, no, and no, although there’s a clue buried in the last guess.
Here’s how 137 Films’ About page begins its explanation:
One hundred thirty-seven is a magical and bizarre number for physicists. It is the value of a number called the fine-structure constant. This constant, 137 (or actually, 1/137), is the way physicists describe the probability that an electron will emit or absorb a photon: it's the square of the charge of the electron divided by the speed of light times Planck’s constant. It combines electromagnetism (the electron charge), relativity (the speed of light), and quantum mechanics (Planck’s constant), and, strangely enough, is a pure, dimensionless number. It has fascinated physicists for decades.
And here’s the third paragraph:
Richard Feynman, one of the greatest physicists of this century said that physicists ought to put a special sign in their offices to remind themselves of how much they don't know. The message on the sign would be very simple. It would consist entirely of one word, or, rather, number: 137.
Aha: the explanation for the company’s logo.
And the atomic-element “clue”? The periodic table of elements now ends with element 118, ununoctium. Back in 1940, it was postulated that neutral atoms cannot exist beyond element 137. (That theory has more recently been disputed.) The hypothetical element 137 was given the clunky if etymologically accurate name “untriseptium.” But among physicists and physics fans, it’s more commonly known as feynmanium, after Richard Feynman.