Einstein and Eddington

One was a repressed Engish homosexual; the other was a wacky and womanising German. They were made for each other, and this TV film charted the course of their relationship rather well.

It had a message about science and war. The professors of the University of Berlin were all busy inventing poison gas, and the English bigwigs banned german science journals from the University library. Meanwhile the real science was being done by the outsiders.

David Tennant made  Eddington’s seriousness and goodness convincing. He really is an excellent actor. I saw him twice at Stratford this autumn – as Hamlet and Berowne. His Hamlet was gripping – combining forceful emotional energy with an attention to the words that gave you quick glimpses of what was happening underneath. In Love’s Labours Lost he simply ruled over a rather naff production; his audience control was amazing – from cosy fun to seriousness in a millisecond. In this film he made you see Eddington’s intellectual excitement, in a way quite different from Andy Serkis, who had the easier job of being manic as Einstein.

The war background was sketched in quite well. I wasn’t sure about the man presenting Eddington with a white feather. I thought only girls did that.

The science had to be simplified of course – but they did the gravitational bending of space-time rather well with a tablecloth, a loaf and an orange.

They had to simplify the scientists too, unfortunately, and this brings me to my one complaint. Jim Broadbent (best of film actors – his Gilbert in Topsy Turvey my all-time favourite among all film performances) was Sir Oliver Lodge, but the script let him down a bit. For the goodies and baddies pattern of film drama to work, he was made an obscurantist, defending Newton’s universe in the face of the evidence. From what I can gather, he was a lot better than that; he had himself made important contributions to the science that Einstein developed, and his objections to General Relativity were serious good scientific questions, not trivial ones.

More interestingly, the death of his son Raymond – important in the filmfor making him anti-German – had another effect. Longing for further contact with his son, he investigated spiritualism, and became a convinced convert to the cause. His book Raymond, about communication with his son after death, sets out his faith, and the evidence for it, written in a very scientific style.

Wanting to concentrate on its main theme, this film did not even mention this development in Lodge’s story. So there is scope  for a new film, concentrating on the paradox of  Britain’s top scientists being lured by his grief into believing hokum. If Jim Broadbent played the part again, it could be fantastic.


  1. Posted November 23, 2008 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    Your criticism of the portrayal of Lodge in the film (which I haven’t seen) sounds fair, from what I remember of Lodge’s scientific work and the reactions to Einstein (yes, Einstein was right, but that doesn’t mean those who disagreed with him were necessarily fools).

    But Lodge had been interested in spiritualism and psychic phenomena long before his son was killed — he was president of the Society for Psychical Research from 1901 to 1903, for example, and began investigating seances in 1883. Janet Oppenheim’s The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) has quite a bit about him.

  2. Posted November 23, 2008 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Brett – thanks for the correction. I’d only come across wartime and post-war mentions of his psychic interests.

  3. Jessica
    Posted November 23, 2008 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    A point about simplifying the science: during the scene where Eddington was presenting Einstein’s work to his colleagues, I actually asked my husband (a mathematician) if an academic physicist would speak to fellow academics in such a simplified fashion. He said that they would. At that level of physics/mathematics, specialisms are such that it is often necessary to discuss them in the simplest of terms to make oneself understood, especially when dealing with something as revolutionary as Einstein’s ideas were at the time. So that aspect may, in fact, have been quite accurate.

    Less convincing to me, after reading many, many letters of condolence, was Lodge’s emotional reaction to his son’s death. Even without the spiritualist element (which I had no idea about – thank you for pointing it out), I would have expected a more complex reaction than simple demonisation of German science because of the death of an individual in the service of his country. There was no hint that notions of duty and the justice of the cause might have shaped Lodge’s mourning, as they shaped the mourning of so many who lost family members during the war.

    Otherwise, I thoroughly enjoyed the production. Tennant really was marvelous throughout. I do still have one question. Is Eddington’s sexuality established or was it a dramatic addition based on a powerful combination of two myths a) that of the repressed Cambridge scientist at the beginning of the 20th century (G.H. Hardy being the most obvious example) and b) that of the undeclared homosexual love between young men during the First World War? At least for once the love interest wasn’t called David!

  4. Posted December 2, 2008 at 5:20 am | Permalink

    talking about war actually makes me afraid.

  5. Posted December 2, 2008 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    But if we don’t talk about it, we may be less able to understand it when it comes…

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