Sidney Perkowitz October 4 2017

Abstract theory has real consequences, in the past and today


Other than pure math, theoretical physics is the most abstract science and may be even harder to grasp. Pure math has strange symbols and equations galore, but so does theoretical physics. Besides, quantum and relativity theory both ask you to believe in things that make no sense in the world we know, yet are true – that quantum particles pop in and out of existence, that a person traveling near the speed of light hardly ages compared to a twin back on Earth, that mass and energy can be changed into each other.

Creating and understanding these abstractions is not easy, which is why minds like Albert Einstein’s are uncommon. But several films in the Labocine collection help by adding visual and dramatic heft to the abstractions or by seeing them from new angles, and by showing how they can change us, especially the theory of relativity through its role in nuclear weaponry.  

Albert Einstein, the world’s most famous theoretical physicist, with the math for his theory of general relativity.

In Les lumières ne seront plus jamais aussi rapide (Light will never be that fast again, 2013), a young woman and her friends meditate on two physics mysteries, the speed of light and the nature of turbulence, while gazing at overhead TV monitors on a train platform and later riding on a train. Their thoughts are expressed as a woman in voice-over (the same one we see?) hints at hidden physics enigmas in an urgent whisper (in French with sub-titles) while an eerie soundtrack and deeply shadowed noir-like camerawork in black and white intensify the sense of untold mysteries. 

The narrator begins by saying “Tragedy began gnawing at me” as she reflects on the speed of light. When the French physicist Hippolyte Fizeau measured that speed in the mid-19th century, he got a value higher than the modern accepted one. The speed of light “has been decaying,” our narrator believes; “It’s not only melancholia but fear. How low will it go? And if it was to stop? What would we do? Do you have plans for sunset?” Not all her thoughts are so dire. She puts in a vote for French joie de vivre when she observes, “Fizeau...sounds so French, almost sparkling,” practically the sound of frothing champagne; but Michelson and Morley – the Americans who measured the speed of light in 1887 and showed that there is no ether – “sounds like a real estate company to me or maybe a wheel factory.”

Les lumières ne seront plus jamais aussi rapide (Light will never be that fast again, 2013),

The film multiply alludes to the theory of relativity. The speed of light is central to the theory, and Einstein himself and many others including myself have used moving trains to demonstrate how the theory changes notions of space and time. There is also a subtle but deep cinematic connection. In its use of voice-over with an unnamed narrator, and unnamed characters; in its unexpected juxtapositions of word and image; in its linkages of emotional states with physical facts; and in its black and white format, this Science New Wave film is highly reminiscent of a great French New Wave film, Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959).

That classic is the story of a brief love affair between a Frenchwoman and a Japanese man set against the backdrop of the devastation of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 by an atomic bomb. The bomb converted matter into destructive energy according to the equation E = mc2, which comes from the theory of relativity. Even more significant, the blast would not have happened without Einstein’s early intervention.

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959).

The story leading up to Einstein’s role is told in Breaking the Chain (2009), a fictionalized version of real events in 1939, a year after German researchers discovered that uranium nuclei could fission into smaller pieces and release torrents of energy. The Hungarian-born American physicist Leo Szilard worried that the Nazis would produce atomic weapons that created enormous destruction through a chain reaction. He wrote a letter to U. S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt urging the U. S. to start building “extremely powerful bombs of a new type.” Knowing that it would be difficult to get the President’s attention, Szilard asked Einstein, by then world famous for relativity, to sign the letter.

That worked, leading to the Manhattan Project that built the bombs the U. S. dropped on Japan, and eventually to films like Breaking the Chain. The film explains the basic physics and shows the initial difficulties: Szilard cannot find a mere $2,000 for his pioneering work on chain reactions (the Manhattan Project eventually cost $27 billion in 2016 dollars); the Nobel Laureate Enrico Fermi is skeptical about chain reactions but comes around; and the scientists are torn between traditional scientific openness and the extreme secrecy of military research.

Breaking the Chain (2009)

All this sets the stage for the Szilard - Einstein letter and what followed, ending in mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Few people have seen either cloud close-up and survived, but As Soon As Weather Will Permit (2015) by Canadian filmmaker Su Rynard presents the experience of one of them. Rynard’s uncle Vernon Rowley was the radar observer aboard Jabit III, one of the B-29 aircraft that accompanied the Enola Gay when it dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.

As Soon As Weather Will Permit (2015)

The film is based on a letter Rynard wrote her Uncle Vern and gives his replies in voice-over and writing, illustrated with a powerful mix of family and historical scenes along with animation footage, images of B-29s in flight, and the mushroom cloud itself. Rowley takes us through his training for a secret military project, the revelation that the U. S. will drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and his reactions as the mission proceeds and he sees the actual blast. Rowley’s calm manner of speaking brings humanity and ordinariness to a surrealistic and historical event and he simply says, “When you are in the thing, and it’s the first one, you don’t reflect [on] what it’s gonna be, you don’t think about it until history has played on it.”

Later, summing up his involvement, he writes “We all did what our country asked to the best of our ability, no questions asked,” but then suggests that it may not have been all that simple when he says “I didn’t have the actual contact devastation. I had the devastation knowing what we’d done, like what have I been a part of.” It doesn’t emerge in the film but a Google search of Rowley’s life and obituary (he died in late 2016) shows that he was a devout Christian. We can wonder how, if at all, his experience with the bomb affected his religious belief.

The history of the atomic bomb began 78 years ago and it has been 72 years since its first and (so far) last use, yet its legacy continues to this very moment. Near the end of her film, Su Rynard tells us, “Vern would say the bomb ended the war. But for me it wasn’t an end. It was just the beginning,” and she is right. The atomic bomb and its successor the hydrogen bomb, carried on intercontinental ballistic missiles, dominated the post-World War II era of the Cold War between the U. S. and the Soviet Union.

That has passed, but now we can worry daily that new mushroom clouds will erupt should a rogue nuclear state like North Korea act as aggressively as it speaks, or if we, the U. S., fail to find the right non-nuclear way to deal with it. We cannot yet forget the lesson of the three films I’ve reviewed: that abstract theory and its practitioners can become pathways to “contact devastation…[and] the devastation knowing what we’d done,” as Vernon understood out of his own past.  

About the Author

Sidney Perkowitz, Candler Professor Emeritus of Physics at Emory University, is the author or editor of Hollywood Science, Hollywood Chemistry and other writings about science in film and other popular science topics. His latest books (forthcoming) are Frankenstein: How a Monster Became an Icon (January 2, 2018) and A Very Short Introduction to Physics (2018).