Chasing Einstein


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Chasing Einstein - Dr Barry C Barrish inspects the LIGO detector
"What's of interest here -aside from the physics itself - is the effect of the journey on the psychology of those involved."

If you're walking down a long road in search of a house that a trusted friend has assured you is there, and you go on, and you go on, and you still haven't found it, eventually you'll start to question yourself. Did you just miss it, somehow? Should you go back the way you came, or would that be a ridiculous thing to do when, if you just find the will to keep walking, it might be right around the next bend?

Such is the search for dark matter, the unseen solution to the problem of making Einstein's Theory Of Relativity fit observed reality. First published in 1905, the theory was itself a long time in the making and followed two centuries of struggle to make Isaac Newton's work fit the evidence. This documentary meets the scientists who are still searching and those who have abandoned the search to work on a new theory, Erik Verlinde's Emergent Gravity, which may or may not provide a better solution. Viewers will be aware at the outset that the documentary is unable to produce any revelatory answers. What's of interest here -aside from the physics itself - is the effect of the journey on the psychology of those involved.

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The descriptions of physics in this film are aimed at a lay audience. You won't need a degree - in fact, a bright child should be able to follow it easily enough - but you will need to be willing to listen without prejudice to ideas that may not immediately make sense to you. Directors Steve Brown and Timothy Wheeler provide simple illustrations to elucidate some points and provide attractive images of the universe to encourage both an emotional connection with the subject matter and a sense of the epic scale of this quest.

Most of the film is fairly straightforward stylistically, consisting of interviews with leading scientists in and around the facilities where they work. Here the directors find visual appeal in the symmetry of data banks, reflections in glass windows, rapidly blinking server lights. Participants discuss the large number of constellations they're working with, all these bright points of information scattered across the sky. One speaks of his distrust of the sea, swelling beneath the terrace where he stands. Perhaps the sea is, by contrast, too dense a source of information to have up close.

Science at this level is too often presented in a dry way, shutting out those who struggle to engage intellectually at the first pass. Chasing Einstein foregrounds the human angle. For the most part you don't need to be able to understand what they're discussing in order to connect with its participants and the enthusiasm they have for what they do - even at times when it seems hopeless. The courage that it takes to dedicate one's life to working on a problems whose solution one may never see comes through clearly. There are moments of excitement and moments of intense disappointment. Each individual's approach is different but what they all share is a sense of being part of something bigger, giving what they can in the cause of greater understanding - even if their own work ultimately results in dead ends.

This is an excellent film for young people considering physics careers to watch in order to get a sense of perspective. It's accessible yet never dumbs down its subject matter. And whilst more educated viewers may find they learn little about the science, there is ample room for them to learn something about those who participate in it - or about themselves.

Reviewed on: 20 Sep 2019
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A look at the still unsolved mysteries associated with Einstein's Theory Of Relativity, the ongoing search for dark matter and those who have abandoned it in favour of working towards a new way of understanding gravity.

Director: Steve Brown, Timothy Wheeler

Writer: Eric Myerson

Starring: Rainer Weiss, Elena Aprile, Barry Barish, Laura Baudis, Margot Brouwer, Eric Verlinde

Year: 2019

Runtime: 82 minutes

Country: US


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