Chasing Einstein

The scientific process is built upon a series of premises, that of reproducibility of experimental results, of peer review, of publication of data, including those which do not adhere to the proposed theory in support of which the experiment was carried out, along with possible explanations for the variances.

It is over a hundred years since Albert Einstein revolutionised physics with first his special then his general theories of relativity, tying together the apparently separate worlds of mass and energy and opening of a door to a new realm of understanding of the nature of spacetime which has extended across disciplines and been subsequently substantially verified by experimental observation.

Crucially, while the speed of light is standardised to its velocity as it passes through a vacuum, Einstein himself did not work in a vacuum, his work encompassing the earlier work of Michelson, Lorentz, Poincaré and others, a chain stretching back to Copernicus, Newton and their peers, a debt which existed even in the time of Sir Isaac as he himself acknowledged: “If I have seen further it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants.”

Thus is it odd that the new documentary Chasing Einstein which had its UK premiere at the Sci-Fi London film festival should begin with the somewhat misleading statement that “Einstein toppled two centuries of physics with a controversial new vision of gravity,” when it would be more true to say he expanded, enhanced and refined an earlier theory.

As is the nature of the scientific process, it is both collaborative and ongoing; there will never not be more science to be done, but will new discoveries overturn Einstein’s relativity as fundamentally incorrect or simply add further clarity and detail?

Beginning with the relatively recent discoveries of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, the documentary has already been superseded in some ways with the even more recent release in April of this year of the astonishing data on the supermassive black hole at the core of supergiant elliptical galaxy Messier 87 compiled by the Event Horizon Telescope, once again supporting Einstein.

Yet there are still gaps in the knowledge, the biggest of which is the one which goes by the name dark matter, a placeholder for a presumed particle or set of particles whose existence can be inferred by the movement of stars and distant galaxies but which have not yet been detected, isolated or verified by any direct means.

Directed by Steve Brown and Timothy Wheeler and written by Eric Myerson, they have interviewed a cross-section of the physics community from PhD candidate Margot Brouwer who recalls her joy at receiving a telescope at age sixteen to Doctor James Beacham who works deep underground at the CERN particle accelerator, “the largest science experiment ever mounted,” and Doctor Elena Aprile, founder of the Xenon Dark Matter Experiment.

An overview of the subject rather than a deep delve, Chasing Einstein is accessible to anyone with a familiarity of the theories of gravity and spacetime while a novice will be carried along by the enthusiasm of the interviewees, intelligent, personable and articulate all, and the breathtaking scenery of Oregon during the “Great American Eclipse” of August 21st 2017 at a party hosted by entrepreneur Cree Edwards.

Admitting that he has been “dissatisfied for years with some of the things we are learning,” feeling that progress of physics with regards to dark matter is on the wrong track, Cree says he is looking for “a completely new way about thinking about space and time… I have questions that I’d like to have answered and I’d like to discuss the possibility that maybe they’re looking for solutions to the problems we’re having in the world of physics in the wrong places.”

While the frustration is understandable the problem is that everyone wants those answers, but wanting them is not sufficient to produce them any more than the king’s ability to picture a unicorn means that such a creature is real, and while Cree’s graciousness as a host to bring together these researchers is appreciated, equally frustrated with the personal sacrifices she has made for no tangible gain but more practical is Doctor Aprile who brings two bottles to on the day of her students’ experimental results, Prosecco for success and cognac for failure.

Determined to celebrate whether the result is a confirmation of a theory or an elimination of a possibility, she is not alone in her attitude. “There is no failure in particle physics,” Beacham says at a lecture discussing the possibility of building a particle accelerator on the Moon of unparalleled power but unspecified budget and timeframe; “The only failure is to stop searching… We are part of a decades, generations, centuries long project to understand more about the fundamental underpinnings of the universe.”

Chasing Einstein had its UK premiere at the Sci-Fi London film festival on 19th May



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