“The English expedition of 1919 is to blame for this whole misery”

Four books to celebrate the centenary of  Eddington’s 1919 eclipse observations. For The Spectator, 11 May 2019.

Einstein’s War: How relativity triumphed amid the vicious nationalism of World War I
Matthew Stanley
Dutton

Gravity’s Century: From Einstein’s eclipse to images of black holes
Ron Cowen
Harvard University Press

No Shadow of a Doubt
Daniel Kennefick
Princeton University Press

Einstein’s Wife: The real story of Mileva Einstein-Maric
Allen Esterson and David C Cassidy; contribution by Ruth Lewin Sime.
MIT Press

On 6 November 1919, at a joint meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Society, held at London’s Burlington House, the stars went all askew in the heavens.
That, anyway, was the rhetorical flourish with which the New York Times hailed the announcement of the results of a pair of astronomical expeditions conducted in 1919, after the Armistice but before the official end of the Great War. One expedition, led by Arthur Stanley Eddington, assistant to the Astronomer Royal, had repaired to the plantation island of Principe off the coast of West Africa; the other, led by Andrew Crommelin, who worked at the Royal Greenwich Observatory, headed to a racecourse in Brazil. Together, in the few minutes afforded by the 29 May solar eclipse, the teams used telescopes to photograph shifts in the apparent location of stars as the edge of the sun approached them.

The possibility that a heavy body like the sun might cause some distortion in the appearance of the star field was not particularly outlandish. Newton, who had assigned “corpuscles” of light some tiny mass, supposed that such a massive body might draw light in like a lens, though he imagined the effect was too slight to be observable.

The degree of distortion the Eddington expeditions hoped to observe was something else again. 1.75 arc-seconds is roughly the angle subtended by a coin, a couple of miles away: a fine observation, but not impossible at the time. Only the theory of the German-born physicist Albert Einstein — respected well enough at home but little known to the Anglophone world — would explain such a (relatively) large distortion, and Eddington’s confirmation of his hypothesis brought the “famous German physician” (as the New York Times would have it) instant celebrity.

“The English expedition of 1919 is ultimately to blame for this whole misery, by which the general masses seized possession of me,” Einstein once remarked; but he was not so very sorry for the attention. Forget the usual image of Einstein the loveable old eccentric. Picture instead a forty-year-old who, when he steps into a room, literally causes women to faint. People wanted his opinions even about stupid things. And for years, if anyone said anything wise, within a few months their words were being attributed to Einstein.

“Why is it that no one understands me and everyone likes me?” Einstein wondered. His appeal lay in his supposed incomprehensibility. Charlie Chaplin understood: “They cheer me because they all understand me,” he remarked, accompanying the theoretical physicist to a film premiere, “and they cheer you because no one understands you.”

Several books serve to mark the centenary of the 1919 eclipse observations. Though their aims diverge, they all to some degree capture the likeness of Einstein the man, messy personal life and all, while rendering his physics a little bit more comprehensible to the rest of us. Each successfully negotiates the single besetting difficulty facing books of this sort, namely the way science lends itself to bad history.

Science uses its past as an object lesson, clearing all the human messiness away to leave the ideas standing. History, on the other hand factors in as much human messiness as possible to show how the business of science is as contingent and dramatic as any other human activity.

While dealing with human matters, some ambiguity over causes and effects is welcome. There are two sides to every story, and so on and so forth: any less nuanced approach seems suspiciously moralistic. One need only look at the way various commentators have interpreted Einstein’s relationship with his first wife.

Einstein was, by the end of their failing marriage, notoriously horrible to Mileva Einstein-Maric; this in spite of their great personal and intellectual closeness as first-year physics students at the Federal Swiss Polytechnic. Einstein once reassured Elsa Lowenthal, his cousin and second-wife-to-be, that “I treat my wife as an employee I can not fire.” (Why Elsa, reading that, didn’t run a mile, is not recorded.)

Albert was a bad husband. His wife was a mathematician. Therefore Albert stole his theory of special relativity from Mileva. This shibboleth, bandied about since the 1970s, is a sort of of evil twin of whig history, distorted by teleology, anachronism and present-mindedness. It does no one any favours. The three separately authored parts of Einstein’s Wife: The real story of Mileva Einstein-Maric unpick the myth of Mileva’s influence over Albert, while increasing, rather than diminishing, our interest in and admiration of the woman herself. It’s a hard job to do well, without preciousness or special pleading, especially in today’s resentment-ridden and over-sensitive political climate, and the book is an impressive, compassionate accomplishment.
Matthew Stanley’s Einstein’s War, on the other hand, tips ever so slightly in the other direction, towards the simplistic and the didactic. His intentions, however, are benign — he is here to praise Einstein and Eddington and their fellows, not bury them — and his slightly on-the-nose style is ultimately mandated by the sheer scale of what he is trying to do, for he succeeds in wrapping the global, national and scientific politics of an era up in a compelling story of one man’s wild theory, lucidly sketched, and its experimental confirmation in the unlikeliest and most exotic circumstances.

The world science studies is truly a blooming, buzzing confusion. It is not in the least bit causal, in the ordinary human sense. Far from there being a paucity of good stories in science, there are a limitless number of perfectly valid, perfectly accurate, perfectly true stories, all describing the same phenomenon from different points of view.

Understanding the stories abroad in the physical sciences at the fin de siecle, seeing which ones Einstein adopted, why he adopted them, and why, in some cases, he swapped them for others, certainly doesn’t make his theorising easy. But it does give us a gut sense of why he was so baffled by the public’s response to his work. The moment we are able to put him in the context of co-workers, peers and friends, we see that Einstein was perfecting classical physics, not overthrowing it, and that his supposedly peculiar theory of relativity — as the man said himself –“harmonizes with every possible outlook of philosophy and does not interfere with being an idealist or materialist, pragmatist or whatever else one likes.”

In science, we need simplification. We welcome a didactic account. Choices must be made, and held to. Gravity’s Century by the science writer Ron Cowen is the most condensed of the books mentioned here; it frequently runs right up to the limit of how far complex ideas can be compressed without slipping into unavoidable falsehood. I reckon I spotted a couple of questionable interpretations. But these were so minor as to be hardly more than matters of taste, when set against Cowen’s overall achievement. This is as good a short introduction to Einstein’s thought as one could wish for. It even contrives to discuss confirmatory experiments and observations whose final results were only announced as I was writing this piece.

No Shadow of a Doubt is more ponderous, but for good reason: the author Daniel Kennefick, an astrophysicist and historian of science, is out to defend the astronomer Eddington against criticisms more serious, more detailed, and framed more conscientiously, than any thrown at that cad Einstein.

Eddington was an English pacifist and internationalist who made no bones about wanting his eclipse observations to champion the theories of a German-born physicist, even as jingoism reached its crescendo on both sides of the Great War. Given the sheer bloody difficulty of the observations themselves, and considering the political inflection given them by the man orchestrating the work, are Eddington’s results to be trusted?

Kennefick is adamant that they are, modern naysayers to the contrary, and in conclusion to his always insightful biography, he says something interesting about the way historians, and especially historians of science, tend to underestimate the past. “Scientists regard continuous improvement in measurement as a hallmark of science that is unremarkable except where it is absent,” he observes. “If it is absent, it tells us nothing except that someone involved has behaved in a way that is unscientific or incompetent, or both.” But, Kennefick observes, such improvement is only possible with practice — and eclipses come round too infrequently for practice to make much difference. Contemporary attempts to recreate Eddington’s observations face the exact same challenges Eddington did, and “it seems, as one might expect, that the teams who took and handled the data knew best after all.”

It was Einstein’s peculiar fate that his reputation for intellectual and personal weirdness has concealed the architectural elegance of his work. Higher-order explanations of general relativity have become clichés of science fiction. The way massive bodies bend spacetime like a rubber sheet is an image that saturates elementary science classes, to the point of tedium.

Einstein hated those rubber-sheet metaphors for a different reason. “Since the mathematicians pounced on the relativity theory,” he complained, “I no longer understand it myself.” We play about with thoughts of bouncy sheets. Einstein had to understand their behaviours mathematically in four dimensions (three of space and one of time), crunching equations so radically non-linear, their results would change the value of the numbers originally put into them in feedback loops that drove the man out of his mind. “Never in my life have I tormented myself anything like this,” he moaned.

For the rest of us, however, A little, prophylactic exposure to Einstein’s actual work pays huge dividends. It sweeps some of the weirdness away and reveals Einstein’s actual achievement: theories that set all the forces above the atomic scale dancing with an elegance Isaac Newton, founding father of classical physics, would have half-recognised, and wholly admired.

 

Implausible science and ambiguous art

Visiting Broken Symmetries at FACT, Liverpool for the Financial Times, 30 November 2018

In The Science of Discworld 4: Judgement Day, mathematician Ian Stewart and reproductive biologist Jack Cohen have fun at the expense of the particle-physics community.

Imagine a group of blind sages in a hotel, poking at a foyer piano. After some hours, they arrive at an elegant theory about what a piano is — one that involves sound, frequency, harmony, and the material properties of piano strings.

Then one of their number suggests that they carry the piano upstairs and drop it from the roof. This they do — and spend the rest of the day dreaming up and knocking over countless ugly hypotheses involving hypothetical “twangons” and “thudons” and, oh, I don’t know, “crash bosons”.

The point — that the physicists working at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Geneva might be constructing the very quantum reality they were hired to study — is lost on none of the 10,000-odd scientists and engineers involved with the project. And this awareness — that the very idea of science is up for grabs here — may explain why CERN’s scientists have taken so warmly to the artists dropped in their midst.

They come on brief visits from the 22 countries that contribute to CERN’s budget. The more established of them — people like Trevor Paglen and Tomás Saraceno — stay for weeks at a time, pursuing some special project. There are joint residencies next year that will see artists shuttling between CERN and astronomical observatories in Chile. Most productive of all are the lucky few chosen for CERN’s Collide International residency programme.

Winning the Collide International gets you two fully funded months in CERN’s labs and labyrinths, rubbing shoulders with arguably the best (and certainly the strangest) minds in physics.

For the exhibition Broken Symmetries at FACT in Liverpool, Arts at CERN director Monica Bello and Peruvian scientist and curator Jose Carlos Mariategui have commissioned new work by CERN’s recent residents, runners-up and honorable mentions. It’s a celebration of CERN’s three-year curatorial collaboration with FACT, the Foundation for Art and Creative Design. Next April the show moves to CCCB , the Centre for Contemporary Culture in Barcelona, where it will effectively advertise CERN’s next three-year partnership, with Barcelona’s city council.

From there, Broken Symmetries travels to Le Lieu Unique in Nantes, France and iMAL, the centre for digital cultures and technology in Sint-Jans-Molenbeek, Belgium, where it finally shuts up shop in the summer of 2020. All this travelling has a point. Since the end of the nineteenth century, physics has been — out of intellectual and financial necessity — an international institution.

So there is a nice double-meaning to the title of the video made for this show by Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt, who work under the name Semiconductor. The View from Nowhere refers to the scientific ideal of objective observation. But by echoing PM Theresa May’s notorious “citizens of nowhere” jibe, it just as effectively trumpets the rootless cosmopolitanism of the scientific community.

The video itself is almost pure anthropology, as the pair explore why it is that people working on the same project explain what they’re doing in so many different ways. Language is full of traps. The hidden world of particles can only be conceptualised by analogies and metaphors, which themselves are limited or misleading. The visual stylings of artists are just as unreliable, of course, but at least they supplement the vocabulary available to researchers. This is one of the possibilities that excites the architect of the residency programme, Monica Bello: “Since I began, it has been very important to me to bring artworks and experiences to the scientific community. This,” she points out, “is an audience in itself.”

Some art here addresses its patrons directly, in the eighteenth-century manner. Through narrative, memoir and archive, Taiwan-born Londoner Yu-Chen Wang explores the human scale of the CERN project. Her video installation We aren’t able to prove that just yet, but we know it’s out there seeks to acknowledge CERN’s unsung multitudes: its technicians, analysts and engineers.

South Korean artist Yunchul Kim reveals the aesthetic elements of his patrons’ work. His sketchbooks, recently on show at the Korean Cultural Centre in London, stripped the components of the Large Hadron Collider (almost all hand-turned — there’s nothing mass-produced about the LHC) down to their design elements. Here, with a three-part sculpture called Cascade, Kim fashions a mechanism that, in homage to the LHC, makes sub-atomic activities visible. Each time a cosmic particle hits his handmade detector, a signal is sent to a gigantic chandelier-like structure. This, in response, pumps a clear, viscous liquid through countless narrow capillary tubes which trail across the floor of the gallery and up into swooping tubes of clear Perspex. Because the refractive index of the capillaries matches the refractive index of the Perspex, the capillaries vanish inside the tubes, leaving beads of liquid apparently suspended in mid-air, rather as one might imagine particles suspended in the magnetic ring of CERN’s collider.

Visitors to CERN run the risk of being inundated by information, and some artists here have saved themselves from drowning by clutching at esoteric straws. Works like Lea Porsager’s Cosmic Strike (a concoction of 3D-animated strings and a neutrino horn from the LHC stores) and Haroon Mirza and Jack Jelfs’s one1one — a bopping 100bpm disco floor drawing on incantation, ritual, and the relationship between written and spoken word — are not the betrayals of hard science they might at first seem. Physics at this extreme tips into metaphysics very easily, witness the ongoing arguments over whether elegant but untestable string theories count as science at all.

Diann Bauer’s Scalar Oscillation, a collaboration with the sound artist Seth Ayyaz, tackles the science head-on. How are we to encapsulate, in painting or poetry or any human medium, the scalar richness of the world, which is so much bigger than we are and so much more intricate than we can possibly perceive? A single sound shrinks to a click, then expands to reveal the oceanic reverberations hidden at its heart. Clean-edged, constructivist visuals try, and fail, to reduce the world to a single sign. Suzanne Treister takes an even more literal approach with The Holographic Universe Theory of Art History, which treats images like particles in an accelerator, projecting over 25,000 pictures from art history (from cave paintings to contemporary art) at 25 frames per second in a looped sequence.

James Bridle’s State of Sin simply offers the scientists of CERN something they can use: random numbers. A family of goofy tripods gathers numbers from the gallery environment: the temperature of the air, the airflow generated by a desk fan, from sounds in the gallery and from fluctuations in the light spilling from a neon tube. Bridle’s point being, CERN’s complex computations require a constant supply of random numbers, and such true randomness cannot be computed, but must be fetched from the messiness of the world.

How many visitors will “get” Bridle’s work? How many, resting their chins on the frame of Juan Cortes’s ingenious clockwork galaxy Supralunar, will realise that the sounds shivering through their jawbones are drawn in real time from the movements of optic fibres inside the clockwork, and that they echo with surprising accuracy the patterns in astronomical data from which scientists have inferred the existence of dark matter? The answer to such boorish questions has traditionally been, “You get out of art what you bring to it, so it doesn’t matter.”

But with this sort of art, I think it does matter. Art that derives from other cultural production must always contend with a creeping sense of its own bankruptcy. Pop art succeeded in making art out of pre-existing media because it flaunted that bankruptcy, chose mass media, and was prepared to laugh at itself.

The art of Broken Symmetries, on the other hand, feeds off highly abstruse media — off bubble-chamber drawings and statistical analyses, all of them generated in pursuit of one fixed and timeless standard cosmological model. This art can’t but struggle to find a purchase in a world full of (indeed, glutted with) other, more familiar, more lively aesthetic vocabularies.

My uneasy feeling is that the artists have done rather too good a job of pointing up the existential implausibility of the whole enterprise. I was reminded of John Gardner’s short, savage novel Grendel, which tells the Beowulf legend from the monster’s point of view.

“They only think they think,” grumbles Grendel, who has the measure of both our intellect and our vanity. “No total vision, total system, merely schemes with a vague family resemblance, no more identity than bridges and, say, spider-webs. But they rush across chasms on spider-webs, and sometimes they make it, and that, they think, settles that!”

 

The physics of dance

Visiting a rehearsal of 8 Minutes, Alexander Whitley’s Sadler’s Wells main-stage debut, for New Scientist, 17 June 2017

IN A basement studio in south London, seven dancers are interpreting some recent solar research from the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire. They are tackling the electromagnetic properties of the sun’s surface, and have got themselves, literally, into a knot. “Something about your grip here is stopping her moving,” frets choreographer Alexander Whitley. “Can we get his hips to go the other way?”

Bit by bit, a roiling form emerges. Imagine a chain, folded in on itself, stretching and reforming. Its movements are coherent and precise, but wildly asymmetrical. This is no tidy, courtly dance. At one point the chain abruptly unwinds. The relief is palpable as the dancers exploit their few seconds of freedom. Very quickly, the chain kinks and folds in on itself again: a folding problem intensely claustrophobic to watch, never mind perform.

Whitley formed his dance company in 2014, and 8 Minutes will be its debut on London’s Sadler’s Wells main stage at the end of June. It is named after the time it takes for light from the sun to reach Earth. “If you imagine travelling this distance at the speed of light, and you subtract all the relativistic effects, it’s quite bizarre,” muses Hugh Mortimer, Whitley’s collaborator and a researcher at Rutherford.

Mortimer designed climate change-detecting spectrometers for the Sentinel-3 satellite, and a sea-surface temperature monitor currently operating from the Queen Mary 2 liner. He hopes to build space-based instruments that analyse the atmospheres of exoplanets. But quite another fascination drew him into collaboration with Whitley’s dance company: the way the most abstruse science can be explained through ordinary experience.

He continues his thought experiment: “For 6 minutes, you’d be sitting in darkness. By the 7th minute you would notice a point of light looming larger: that’s the Earth. You’d arrive at the moon, pass by Earth, and a few seconds later you’d pass the orbit of the moon again. And the point is, passing the moon and the Earth and the moon again a few seconds later would feel intuitively right. It would feel ordinary.”

However difficult an idea, someone, somewhere must be able to grasp it, or it’s not an “idea” in any real sense. How, then, are we to grasp concepts as alien to our day-to-day experience as electromagnetism and the speed of light? It’s a question that has cropped up before in these pages, although seldom through the medium of dance. In 1988, for example, computer scientist Tony Hey wrote about his lunch with US physicist Richard Feynman, who explained particle spin “using the belt from his trousers” (New Scientist, 30 June 1988, p 75).

As for Whitley, he says: “We grasp quite advanced concepts first and foremost through movement. That forms a semantic template for the complex thinking we develop when we acquire language. Right, left, up, down, front, back – also the idea of containment, the concept of an inside and an outside – these ideas come through our bodies.”

This is especially true in children, he argues, because they don’t yet have fully developed rational capabilities. “I think there’s strong potential for using movement to give them a different understanding of and engagement with scientific ideas,” Whitley says.

Mortimer discovered the truth of this idea for himself quite recently: “Alexander runs a creative learning project for 9 and 10-year-olds based on our collaboration. Sitting in on some sessions, I found myself thinking about solar-dynamic processes in a new and clearer way.”

Will the audience at the work’s premiere leave understanding more about the sun? From what I saw, I’m optimistic. They won’t have words, or figures, for what they’ll have seen, but they will have been afforded a glimpse into the sheer dynamism and complexity of our nearest star.

Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku

Traveling back to the future? Best carry this breathless guide to the next one hundred years. The Sunday Telegraph sent me a copy: here’s the review.

Kaku then quotes approvingly from Max Frisch that “Technology [is] the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it”. Is the co-founder of string theory having us on?

Kaku

 

An interview with Lee Smolin

Can the future be predicted? In his book Time Reborn (2013), physicist Lee Smolin set out to show that the world is an unpredictable place, and that common-sense, Newtonian habits of thought prove seriously mistaken when applied to the great unbounded problems of our age, from economics to climate change.

In the first part of this interview, conducted for Arc magazine, Lee Smolin explains why Newtonian physics cannot be applied to the world as a whole, and why the work of Newton’s great rival, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, may hold the key to a new model of the universe.

… and in the second part Smolin explores the human implications of a world where time is real and true novelty in nature is possible.