Einstein and Eddington

Einstein and Eddington is a beautiful historical drama, detailing the professional friendship between Arthur Eddington and Albert Einstein in the early twentieth century. While their respective countries indulged (and got lost in) in petty, meaningless and murderous nationalisms, both scientists persevered in trying to see the world as it really was. Despite their fundamental differences, and with science being abused by the ultimate in rationalisation, these two insisted on pushing its frontiers into something entirely new.

Both David Tennant and Andy Serkis are sublime as Eddington and Einstein respectively, the former coming across sometimes worryingly John Smith, although that being more a reflection on the dramatic qualities he brings to Doctor Who, allowing his run occasionally to transcend its genre than anything else. Their performances reflect the characters dualities – both being of their time and social standing yet hugely different from one another – Eddington a closeted gay Quaker who championed measurement and precision, and Einstein who was so far ahead of his time that God and the afterlife were as intellectually absurd as nationality. As Nigel Hawkes says:

Einstein was a non-believer, a bohemian with an eye for the ladies; Eddington was a straitlaced Quaker who lived with his sister and constantly struggled to square science and God. One was a dreamer of genius; the other an experimentalist devoted to careful measurement and empirical truth.

The First World War informs both of their thinking, and indeed their faith – was Einstein to take God out of Newton? In the end God becomes a personal, positive quality affecting the individual, rather than being a determining shaper of the universe. You have to wonder whether the means by which this is indeed currently expressed by mainstream society was forged by Eddington’s proof of the General Theory of Relativity, but it makes a very satisfying outcome to the drama. Against the odds Eddington proved that starlight indeed bent, that spacetime was shaped, but ultimately also the story’s moral – that the pursuit of truth in science transcends national boundaries. A story for the ages and well worth 90 highly engaging minutes. If you missed it it’s on the BBC iPlayer for a week from today.


24 responses to “Einstein and Eddington

  1. You describe Eddington as a “closeted gay” . There is nothing in history to back this up. In fact it’s only the distorted 21st century view of all love between men as being “gay” that allows that interpretation of the drama’s portrayal. As a Quaker it’s far more likely that he loved his friend as a Christian brother. Love and sexuality are not the same thing, though nowadays many have forgotten this.

  2. Love and sexuality are indeed not the same thing, but there’s sure a large crossover between them. I fully accept that Eddington might not have been sexually attracted to William Marston (or his real world analogue, if a device for the film), but sexual orientation is far from merely about sex. Ultimately alluding to his sexual orientation being ‘gay’, whether historically accurate or not, was an effective device to parallel both characters’ struggle against rigid social conventions, despite their great differences.

    You have actually identified the difficult thing in doing a review for a historical adaptation rather than a documentary – how do you relate and critique the story if it diverges significantly from the actual history? I don’t know if Eddington was gay or not – I don’t believe it makes the TV movie any more or less interesting either way. I’m curious if it weren’t true why the programme makers would choose to depict him as gay (which they clearly did).

  3. I think one of the greatest sources of confusion in modern society’s treatment of “love” is that we, unlike the Ancient Greeks, have only a single word to describe the many different types of love which exist:

    “Agape” represents divine, unconditional, self-sacrificing, active, volitional, and thoughtful love.

    “Eros” is passionate love, with sensual desire and longing. Some translations list it as “love of the body.”

    “Philia”, a dispassionate virtuous love, was a concept developed by Aristotle. It includes loyalty to friends, family, and community, and requires virtue, equality, and familiarity. It can also mean “love of the mind.”

    “Storge” is natural affection, like that felt by parents for offspring.

    “Xenia”, hospitality, was an extremely important practice in Ancient Greece. It was an almost ritualized friendship formed between a host and his guest, who could previously have been strangers.

    I saw nothing in the Eddington-Einstein drama which would lead me to believe that Eddington’s “Love” was in any way “Erotic”. Assigning sexual content to his emotion is not justified by history or the context in the drama. It is simply wishful thinking on your part.

    Isn’t your assertion that Eddington was a “closeted gay” simply an attempt to recruit him in support of your own agenda?

  4. Turning to your comment that for Einstein “God and the afterlife were … intellectually absurd”, I admit that the drama did attempt to portray the character as holding this belief. However the historical Einstein’s beliefs can be illustrated by the following quotations:

    “My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior Spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds. The deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning Power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.”

    “Certain it is that a conviction, akin to religious feeling, of the rationality and intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a higher order. The firm belief, which is bound up with deep feeling, in a superior mind revealing himself in the world of experience, represents my conception of God”

    It seems to me that the drama promoted agendas which neither the historical Eddington nor the historical Einstein would have agreed.

  5. Actually your use of ‘agenda’ leads me to suspect the reverse. As I’ve stated it was how I interpreted a character in a television drama, nothing more. You make some interesting points about philosophical love. However in the last few millennia we’ve also learned the science behind sexual orientation. Whilst it doesn’t discount the importance of philosophy in love and sexuality, it’s hardly the dominant force.

    I agree it may have lost a degree of authenticity by looking at love and sexuality in the early 20th century through the prism of our 21st century perspective, but remember it was just a fictional adaptation of history for a very modern audience.

  6. It seems to me that the drama promoted agendas which neither the historical Eddington nor the historical Einstein would have agreed.

    I think you’re taking this far too seriously. Were this a documentary I might share your perspective, but it wasn’t – it was a highly enjoyable historical drama. I see no harm in the writer having a perspective on the issues raised – it’s neither here nor there whether Eddington or Einstein would have supported the film. And the moral of the piece, which radiates from Eddington remember, was that God and faith were the antidote to excessive industrial rationality, which had fueled the First World War. No anti-religion agenda there imho, it was a quite well explored issue though, using a fictionalised Einstein and Eddington to do so.

  7. I’m afraid I have to disagree: this programme was publicised as a drama-documentary which presents a factual content. Here’s the first line of the press release:
    “BBC Drama, HBO and Company Pictures are proud to announce Einstein And Eddington, a film which takes a closer look at the story behind the creation of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity and the personal lives of the men behind it.”

    “Takes a closer look” clearly implies that this is intended as historical analysis. Viewers who make no further effort t o examine the history using reliable sources are left with the impression that Eddington was a “closeted gay” and Einstein was an atheist. This isn’t taking a “closer look” at history, it is blatant historical revisionism in support of a 21st century secularist manifesto.

  8. “Takes a closer look” clearly implies that this is intended as historical analysis.

    I’m not sure where you saw it, but BBC2 sure didn’t present it as a documentary – even the BBC website shows it as a ‘drama’, not suggesting for a moment that it was anything other than an adaptation of history rather than a re-presentation of history. It would be revisionism if it were a ‘Horizon’ special, but to label it part of a ’21st century secularist manifesto’ just doesn’t follow.

    Maybe you missed the upshot where Eddington at least had his faith strengthened by his proof of Einstein. How that fits in with what you’re implying as some covert indoctrination of the audience to secularism I don’t know. Given that it’s a drama I’m not sure how that could be a problem anyway. I doubt the real life Jim Garrison behaved anything like the one Oliver Stone presented in JFK, but that didn’t make the drama any the less valid.

  9. The Times Online review by Nigel Hawkes article that you’ve linked to in your blog describes the programme as a “documentary-drama”. It’s just as well that Isaac Newton died in 1727. If he had been a contemporary of Einsten and Eddington I dread to think how the “documentary-drama” would have portrayed him. No doubt his interest in alchemy would have been 21st century code for illicit substance manufacture and abuse….

  10. it’s a friggin TV show John it’s not going to be accurate, nor is it going to please everyone. Your nitpicking worse than I do.

    Honestly are you seriously upset that a televised drama doesn not accurately portray a historical figure the way you envisioned them? Crikey I’d hate to see you tear apart every single movie based on a book.

  11. Nitpicking me? By the way I think you’ll find that the correct grammar for your accusation should be “You’re nitpicking” not “Your nitpicking” .

    I can cope with inaccurate portrayals, what I strongly object to is the deliberate saddling of important historical figures with modern obsessions in order to subliminally proselytise an unsuspecting, uncritical audience.

  12. “an unsuspecting, uncritical audience”, these people just started watching TV? The only people that care should know better than to believe and the ones that don’t know better will believe anything you put on the tv anyway.

    Remember 25% of the population is retarded and another 25% is subpar intelligent.

  13. You say “Remember 25% of the population is retarded and another 25% is subpar intelligent.”, I strongly disagree with this, but even if your assertion was true, it would increase the responsibility that publicly funded broadcasters have to edify their audience rather than feed them garbage. There is no valid justification for broadcasting propaganda disguised as entertainment.

  14. I think your argument is self-serving, because by your own admission your ability to cope with ‘inaccurate portrayals’ is restricted to subjects you don’t have a political viewpoint on. You know to call the audience for this film ‘uncritical’ is downright disingenuous – do you have any evidence to suggest that an audience which would choose to watch BBC2 and a film about two scientists when the X-Factor was on on ITV at the same time wouldn’t be able to critically evaluate this drama? The Times’ labelling of it is quite irrelevant, but you know this…

  15. The average intelligence in Britain is 100 therefore approx 25% of the population is near 50, which is retarded, and the other 25% is subpar.

    Television is the opiate of the masses, and thus traditionally dumbed down. Anything with the word “Drama” should be considered alongside soap operas. Your huff is laughable when considered and your expectation of television to be anything other than the writers or producers views equally absurd. But it is funny it reminds me of my mother complaining about sex and bad language in movies.

  16. My “huff” may well be laughable for people who share your disdain for such a large proportion of the population. I’m not ashamed to say that I tend to agree with your mother’s views. The BBC is currently facing a public backlash as a result of Brand’s and Ross’s antics – hopefully this will rasie standards and the BBC will return to the Reithianism of its early decades (ie to consider all viewers equally and offer high standards in public service, probity, and universality).

  17. See John this is where your argument is inconsistent again. The BBC put on a dramatic production, even bringing in the current Doctor Who to try to get a bigger audience than normal, and despite not being 100% accurate (as no historical drama ever tries to be), was entirely about educating the masses and entertaining them at the same time. That film was about as Reithian as you could get – you seem to think that Reithian values must always be rooted in the most consistent high culture. Want that? Go to BBC4 surely.

    The BBC is facing a backlash against Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross because two overly highly paid, yet hugely popular egotists did their normal ‘thing’ at a time when, with money tight in viewer’s pockets, their expectations of value for money became suddenly much stricter than normal. The fault was editorial, far more than the ‘stars’. I also don’t believe for a minute that Einstein and Eddington is anything other than the polar opposite of Brand/Ross – it was about as good as public broadcasting gets.

    @Tim – Anything with the word “Drama” should be considered alongside soap operas.

    Maybe on American TV (and increasingly not the case there either), but that’s certainly not the case here. If you’d care to back that argument up I’m all ears.

  18. I think I was being somewhat inconsistent in my use of Reithianism!
    I think we’ve taken this debate as far as it can go – thank-you for an intelligent and thought-provoking blog, I look forward to disagreeing with you again.

  19. Sir you bait me.

    1. a serious play for theatre, television, or radio
    2. plays in general, as a form of literature
    3. the art of writing, producing, or acting in a play
    4. a situation that is exciting or highly emotional

    While definition number one supports your position I point to definition number 4. Life is rarely dramatic, and therefore to make a dull scientific docudrama at all entertaining they inject some point of current politics or contention that will spark viewer debate or attendance. After all if it were accurate would they not call it a biography?

  20. I understand the point you’re trying to make, but although a soap opera is drama-tic, a ‘drama’ production isn’t conventionally understood to be a soap opera. The gross generalisation you made – that a film like this had essentially as much merit as Days of Our Lives or EastEnders – simply doesn’t follow because the storytelling forms have almost nothing in common.

  21. at the time the subtle differences of our languages makes itself apparent. I think this is one of those times. I cannot imagine a drama without characters and protagonists. An over arching plot line of tension and release. So while I bow to the proper definition and admit my mistake I suspect there has been a shift in the language that would lead me to this thought.

  22. John Smith is right that there’s no conclusive evidence about Eddington’s sexuality. But unfortunately in 20th century England the consequences of being outed were so severe (consider the tragic fate of Alan Turing) that a veil of silence is what we would expect to see if Eddington had been gay.

    Arthur Miller writes in “Empire of the Stars”: “It could well be that the two [Eddington and Charles Trimble] were more than simply friends. But in those days it was downright dangerous to be even suspected of homosexuality. Everyone was aware of the penalties of getting caught. The Oscar Wilde affair of 1895 still cast its shadow. If Eddinton was a practicing homosexual he wuld have had to be extremely careful in his liaisons; had word got out, he would have been ruined.” [page 39]

    So it’s a reasonable straw of supposition to base a drama on. Certainly far from the worst piece of invention in the programme.

  23. In John’s first comment on this blog he says that Eddington was far more likely to love his friend as a christian brother and further that love and sexuality are not the same. Well…I was once an ‘Attender’ of the Society of Friends (you have to apply to join and only after acceptance are a Quaker…or be born as one) and I’ve also lived as a gay man for 16 years (currently of doubtful orientation). In the Soc of Friends it is quite usual to interpret love as extending oneself (in any way: physically, emotionally, materially and/or spiritually) for someone elses benefit. Extending oneself physically is not a selfish act since sex is undertaken by mutual consent. The strict compartmentalizing of love into categories (platonic or sexual etc) amuses me when one considers that the easiest way to strike someone dumbfounded is to ask them for a definition of love. When one shakes the hand of a ‘platonic’ love on parting…how wonderful it feels to touch…not much of a dividing line! Just a pre-programmed reticence. Also (in parting) not all Quakers are Christians; they all believe in an inner light that is inside everyone…the inner light of the spirit…and that it’s there to be listened to and allowed to direct our actions. George Fox, who founded the Quakers recognized it in the North American Indian as much as in his own followers. Eddington would have thought more like me than like Ian Paisley.

  24. Whether or not Eddington was gay in real life, it always amazes me that people require absolute proof when a man declares his love for a man, that it is sexual, and do not require that same proof when a man declares his love for a woman. Some of the commentors here are behind the times.

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