HBO is airing a docudrama they produced in conjunction with BBC on the pursuit for a new theory of gravity. The movie “Einstein and Eddington” details (if not dramatizes a bit…) Albert Einstein’s efforts to come up with his theory of general relativity, and Arthur Eddington’s efforts to prove him right, all in the backdrop of World War I.
The tensions of the times (and within the movie) highlight that, with World War I pitting German and English armies against each other, Einstein was German-born and Eddington was English, so their long distance correspondence went against the nationalistic trends of the day.
As many people know, Einstein allowed us to realize that objects with heavy mass, such as the Sun, bend the space around it, which is why planets orbit around the Sun. The theory would also predict that light would also be bent in the same way as it traveled by the Sun.
If this were true, stars would appear to us in slightly different places in the sky when stars are behind the Sun. Eddington realized that this could be tested by photographing stars at night, and then photographing these same stars during a total solar eclipse. In the solar eclipse, the starlight would have to pass by the Sun, but the Moon would block out any sunlight, allowing us to view the stars themselves.
Eddington had to wait several years for the right eclipse conditions, traveling to Africa in 1919. There were rain and clouds that made the expedition a near failure – but only a near failure because he actually got two good pictures that were enough to confirm Einstein’s theory. As a result of Eddington’s efforts, Einstein became a celebrity overnight and changed the way we view the universe around us.
There are some interesting ideas that are brought to light in this movie, which track the real-life arcs of these two great scientists pretty well, although there is a little literary license to make the scientists “Hollywood” interesting. Still, if you run across it, “Einstein and Eddington” is worth the hour-and-a-half of your time.
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