16 February 2012

Einstein and Eddington

Einstein and Eddington: Summary
(as distributed in our class)

The main plot
Arthur Eddington, newly-appointed chief astronomer at Cambridge University, is expected to defend Isaac Newton's theories, which are believed to be a complete explanation for the mechanics of the universe. An anomaly in Mercury's orbit leads Eddington to look to physicist Albert Einstein for an alternative explanation, based on their mutual interest in gravity. Their correspondence leads to Eddington's idea for an expedition to West Africa, where observations during a solar eclipse in 1919 might result in Newton's vindication--or his dethronement in favor of Einstein's radical new ideas.

Most of the film takes place during World War I. Eddington is under pressure to submit to wartime hyper-patriotism, which included prejudices against Germans (even German scientists) and against conscientious objectors (отказники по убеждениям; he is a Quaker). Likewise, Einstein is under equivalent pressures in Germany, and is shocked to see his scientific colleagues participating in weapons development and testing.

Eddington's dearest friend William Marston dies in battle; this death and the massive battle deaths generally cause a crisis of faith for Eddington, much to the concern of his sister and housekeeper Winifred.

When German physicist Max Planck invites Einstein to leave his professorship in Zurich and return to Germany, Einstein's marriage to Mileva Marić is already under strain. In Berlin, Einstein falls in love with his cousin Elsa Löwenthal; they get married in 1919, a few months after Einstein's and Marić's divorce.

Oh leave the Wise our measures to collate
One thing at least is certain, light has weight
One thing is certain and the rest debate
Light rays, when near the Sun, do not go straight.
--Arthur Eddington

I ran across this 2008 made-for-TV film for the first time a few months ago and decided it might make good material for our listening comprehension course. Today in class we watched the first half of the film; we'll see the second half next week.

Naturally, I was interested to see how Quakers are portrayed in this rare prime-time glimpse of a prominent member of our church, the astrophysicist and 1929 Swarthmore lecturer Arthur Stanley Eddington. The subject of Friends first comes up when Oliver Lodge (shown in the film as an advocate of Eddington's appointment to Newton's Cambridge chair) is talking to Eddington about Lodge's son Raymond, who has just joined the army despite his short stature. ("The recruiting officer measured him in his shoes... We're damn proud of the boy.") Lodge looks at Eddington and says, "I know you're a Quaker and won't fight. I've no quarrel with that. But you're worried. Because you're an Englishman, you feel your patriotism is in conflict with your faith. I can help." Lodge in fact wants Eddington's help--specifically, to find out why the Germans are so eager to recruit the relatively obscure physicist Albert Einstein into the ranks of the militarized science faculty in Berlin.

There are limits to Lodge's help for Eddington. Raymond Lodge is killed in battle in 1915, and Oliver Lodge (at least in the film) adamantly presses a resolution banning scientific contact with Germans over Eddington's strong objections. In the meantime, in a scene very reminiscent of a meeting for worship, but in the chief astronomer's official residence--Arthur and his sister Winifred explain why their Quaker faith required them to help a local German family.

"We are silent," says Winifred, "we listen so that God may be heard." Arthur continues, "Who are we? If we are anything,  we Quakers are men and women of principle. We will never believe that any man, woman or child is unwelcome in our beloved England because they were born in another country." Addressing the Muller family directly, he says: "This is your home." For me, this was a very powerful moment, thinking both of the interethnic tensions here in Russia and of our struggle for justice in the USA for economic and political refugees in this political open season on immigrants.

The real-life Eddington believed that Friends lack of emphasis on verbal creeds allowed us to "hold out a hand to the scientist." This side of Quaker thinking, as portrayed in the film, is shown briefly in a conversation that Arthur has with his sister, in which he recounts the results of the research on Einstein that he did at Lodge's request.

He confesses to Winifred that his report to his fellow physicists wasn't totally candid. To his colleagues he had reported that Einstein had not addressed gravity--the binding force that holds together Newton's system. To Winifred, he says, "One of them asked a question I didn't answer. ... [Einstein] does say something about gravity. He doesn't mention it, but if you look properly, it's obvious. He poses a question. Newton says that gravity is instantaneous, but Einstein says that the speed of light is the speed limit of the universe, so gravity can't be instantaneous. They can't both be right. Einstein or Newton, that's the question [his colleague was] asking."

Winifred responds, "Well then, the truth is all that matters. And you must go after it."

World War I took a terrible toll on Europe's fighting-age generation. It took the life of Lodge's son Raymond, hardening the father's rage against Germany (and in real life, probably increasing Lodge's interest in life after death and in communicating with the dead). The war also took the life of Eddington's dear friend William Marston. The use of poison gas in combat added a new dimension of horror to the conflict, shocking the Cambridge scientists and infuriating Einstein, whose resulting anti-militarist tirades led to severe restrictions on his freedom (and in reality almost led to his arrest). Those restrictions made it difficult for him to carry on his communication with Eddington--a correspondence which Eddington had initiated in trying to apply Einstein's ideas to scientists' inability to figure out why Mercury's orbit didn't correspond exactly to Newtonian predictions. That communication is really the backbone of this film, eventually resulting in the expedition to West Africa that begins and ends the film.

There are several other references to Friends in the film--for example, in Eddington's and Marston's fateful last conversation before the latter's departure for military training. For me, one of the most moving references to Friends history is an incident that takes place after the war ends. Despite her concern about her brother's crisis of faith, Winifred decides to go to Germany to participate in the Quaker aid programs there. (At this same time Quaker aid to Russia was also beginning, laying the basis for the eventual massive relief work centered at Buzuluk.)

I assured students today that we were showing this film to illustrate important themes of science and ethics, and to provide great examples of spoken English, not to propagandize for Friends. And, after all, only a tiny sliver of Friends' reality is shown in the film. But it's much more in both quantity and quality than I've seen in a mainstream presentation for a long time.

One piece of dialogue was absolutely delicious, taking into account the actor, David Tennant, who plays Eddington in this film. Eddington is reporting to his colleagues on Einstein's theories of time: "He's suggesting that time is at different speeds in the universe, depending on how fast you're moving. The faster you move, the more time... slows down. ... Time isn't shared. It's not an absolute." Take it from the Time Lord himself.

After reading a number of very positive reviews, I overcame my intense dislike of the marketing of books on spirituality to buy the latest book by an excellent Quaker writer, Richard Foster. The book, Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey into Meditative Prayer, must have something going for it--Foster mentions Theofan the Recluse and Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the same page. And his writing is as clear and warm and unmannered and inspirational as ever. I'll say more about the book after I have finished reading it, but for now let me just explain my curmudgeonly first sentence.

Good writers, especially writers on urgent subjects of spiritual nurture and growth, obviously want anyone who would benefit to read their books. Publishers, on the other hand, are looking to lure that supposed best-fit market who will give the book those first crucial thirty seconds of scrutiny. So, for many of Peter Wagner's important books on spiritual warfare, the publisher decided on a sort of tech manual appearance, as if spiritual warfare could be marketed like high-tech weaponry. "Arm yourself with this book" says the appearance, while the contents might in fact say something else--for example, the "whole armor of God," something entirely different and far more organic.

With Foster's book, the publishers are apparently aiming at another segment of the market. To quote my own words from my comments on Brent Bill's book Mind the Light: Learning to See with Spiritual Eyes, "the packaging of the book--woodcut-style cover and all--says 'spiritual self-help' to me. The market is full of books that appeal to an affluent audience hungry for spirituality as long as it is presented with appropriate elegance and sophistication." Foster's new hardcover book is decorated with gauzy art--trees and cathedral detail--rather than woodcuts, but still....

Screenshot from source.
The nicer side of me says, "Johan, calm down, why complain when something is done tastefully!?" Still, for me, there's a disconnect. In the video promo for the book, Foster says that meditative prayer "is something we can do, it isn't just for spiritual gurus, it's for ordinary people, and the reader can enter into the experience for themselves...ordinary people who have jobs and children and dishes to wash, and work to do, but who can learn to sink down into the light of Jesus until they become comfortable in that posture, learning the joy of the Lord and learning to walk cheerfully on the face of the earth." Presumably that includes people who will never have the leisure to visit beautiful cathedrals and walk through fragrant meadows or who normally don't listen to the sort of bland guitar strummings and cymbal brushings that we hear behind Foster's words in the video. Everyone can benefit from the work that Foster has done to make the riches of meditative Christianity accessible.

Suddenly I'm homesick for Portland. Here's why: the Justice Conference, February 24-25. Look who's coming: Walter Brueggemann, Miroslav Volf, and my long-time hero John Perkins, among many others.

Why are Jehovah's Witnesses persecuted?

One of the reviews of Foster's new book.

The Eastern Orthodox member of the White Rose circle is canonized.

Nate Macy, "My soul finds rest."
The word salvation has pretty much been knocked over in a hit and run, caught on the back bumper and dragged down the street by the ideology of those who think God’s work is primarily about future redemption, folks who don’t think that the Kingdom of God is at hand, but someplace in the future after we die. It’s not so much that God’s saving work doesn’t address what happens later, there can be no doubt that it does. It’s that God says it’s not then that matters, it’s now.
Seems oddly related to the Einstein and Eddington film: Robin Parry announces, "God is timeless ... I think."

"If Khader Adnan were anything but Palestinian."

Latest news about Blue Like Jazz (the movie).

From the church sponsoring the Justice Conference...


Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Thank you for sharing Einstein and Eddington! I’d never heard of it, perhaps because I am not a TV watcher. But I will definitely seek out a copy now!

Johan Maurer said...

Amazon.com sells Region 2 imported disks of this movie. Our cheap DVD player doesn't care about regions, but I think most sold in the USA do care. Maybe you could watch it on your computer.

Rita Eddington said...

I'm the Great great great granddaughter