Einstein is one of the most famous scientists who ever lived. You may not know the meaning of E = mc2, but you’ve certainly heard about it. Eddington on the other hand – who is he? Even I can only name one of Eddington’s achievements; namely the 1919 expedition to the South African island of Principe to observe a solar eclipse. It was here that Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity was put to the test, and it is here that the BBC drama Einstein and Eddington begins.
As Eddington awaits the eclipse, hoping for the rain to end, we flashback to five years earlier. The First World War is beginning, and the conflict between England and Germany has spilled over into science. Germany is rounding up its experts in preparation for war, and there is one man they desperately want: Einstein. Eddington is tasked with finding out why.
Einstein and Eddington is a treat for fans of science fiction as much as fans of science. Andy Serkis (Gollum from Lord of the Rings) and David Tennant (Doctor Who) take the titular roles and make them their own. Writer Paul Moffat takes every opportunity to contrast the two men, and Serkis’s crazy-haired womanising Einstein is a far cry from the homosexually repressed Quaker Eddington, who makes a welcome change from Tennant’s typically manic Tardis dweller.
At times, this was perhaps taken a little too far – although I admit to not being widely read on Eddington, I’ve literally never seen any mention of him being gay. It might be that this aspect of his personality was accentuated a little to further stand apart from Einstein.
This could be because their differences were essential to the message of the film: science transcends all. Eddington, railing against a proposal to banish all German members from the Royal Observatory following the gas attack at Ypres cries “The pursuit of truth in science transcends national boundaries, takes us beyond hatred, and anger and fear! It is the best of us!” Einstein is equally horrified by what his countrymen in Berlin have done, and his outbursts lead to him being denied access to the University.
These two men, so different in their approach both to science (Einstein was a theorist, whilst Eddington prided himself on being “the best measuring man in England) and to life, brought about a scientific revolution and overthrew Newton despite only corresponding by letter. Indeed, our protagonists don’t even meet in the film until one, final, handshake.
It’s undoubtedly great drama, but is it great science communication? As is perhaps unavoidable, much of the science is conveyed outside of the drama. Einstein explains his ideas to his son, and Eddington turns to a convenient German family which he rescues from beatings at the hands of the English. The concepts are there, including a nice demonstration of the curvature of space using a tablecloth, a loaf of bread and an apple, but it can’t help but feel slightly off. Still, the ideas are presented as interesting enough for the casual viewer to pursue if they wish. Disputes about the accuracy of Eddington’s confirmation in Africa are also swiftly brushed under the table – but that’s only to be expected, as they don’t fit into the tidy narrative.
If I sound a little down on the film, I’m not. I really enjoyed it, and the forthcoming DVD release has already been added to my Christmas wishlist. If you don’t want to wait that long, you can watch on BBC iPlayer until this Saturday evening. Even if you aren’t interested in the science (though of course I hope you are) it’s a well made period drama that can be appreciated by all.