Sunday, October 5, 2014

HBO is Showing "Einstein and Eddington" Now

In 2008, the BBC made a biopic (or dramatization) of events in Albert Einstein's and Arthur Eddington's life and work, and how they intersected. It was cosponsored by HBO and I just found out that HBO is currently showing this film (you can see it in the "On Demand" section of your cable TV offerings if you subscribe to HBO.) It may not last long, and it is not available on DVD yet in the U.S.

I recommend it with some enthusiasm (it's moving, and fun to watch), but also many reservations (the science and history are not always accurate, or -- to be charitable -- are twisted or changed in the interests of higher drama.)

I think everyone has heard of Einstein, but Arthur Eddington was an astronomer and physicist in England in the early part of the 20th century who contributed a lot to our understanding of how stars work. He was also a key member of the eclipse expedition in 1919 that tested if Einstein's crazy new theory of gravity, space, and time -- the general theory of relativity -- was correct. Measurements during that eclipse, and especially during a later eclipse made by a team from the Lick Observatory, established that Einstein was right and that the universe was more complex and beautiful in its inner workings than earlier scientists had imagined.

The film begins and ends around the eclipse expedition, but then goes back in time to set the scene. Many historical details are wrong or skipped over -- Elsa was divorced with two kids when she re-encountered Einstein in Berlin, the famous image of Einstein sticking out his tongue was later in his life, Eddington didn't have to tell Einstein about Mercury, etc. But such details don't matter to most viewers, and sometimes mixing things up a bit helps move the story along. And the flavor of the excitement around relativity is well characterized, with the two main actors doing a nice job in portraying the scientists and their personalities.

If you get HBO, or have a friend who does, and have a chance to see it, I recommend the film for everyone except historians of 20th century science, who will have a fit about those details. (The same production team also did a biopic about Stephen Hawking, called just "Hawking" and I gather you can find that film in segments on YouTube.)

Above you see the two scientists as portrayed in the movie, below you see the two of them from real life.
(For movie and TV fans, I can't resist adding: Gollum plays Einstein, Dr. Who plays Eddington.)


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