Back to basics
Posted: 02 Nov 2006 @ 00:00
WHETHER God plays dice is less a theological than a scientific conundrum.
Einstein’s Unfinished Symphony (BBC2, Thursday of last week)
celebrated the centenary of the Einstein’s formulation of the theory of special
relativity with a beautifully crafted dramatisation of the final two days of
his life some 50 years later.
As he lay dying, he insisted on continuing what he saw as his great project:
constructing a theory of everything. He was desperate to do this because his
own work — turning Newtonian physics upside down — had spawned an incubus,
quantum theory, which seemed to him to run counter to his deepest convictions.
Quantum theory is the study of sub-atomic particles. At this microscopic
level, matter does not behave according to clear and regular rules. The guiding
principle is uncertainty, and the best one can manage is probability a
calculation of the most likely range outcomes in a given situation.
This was abhorrent to Einstein, an attack on the very nature of existence,
for he believed that the universe must be fundamentally regular, and must work
according to consistent principles? Of greatest interest to us is that the
programme presented his conviction as essentially religious: that he believed
that God, as he put it, does not play dice, and does not set up a creation
which acts arbitrarily.
And so he endeavoured until his dying breath to formulate a theory that
would link relativity with quantum mechanics, and would show how they were
related in a single universal unity. This was a beautiful programme, a moving
demonstration of religious and scientific convictions co-existing in mutual
Holocaust: A Musical Memorial Film from Auschwitz (BBC2, Saturday)
commemorated, as does a range of programmes currently broadcast, the 60th
anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp. Great musicians were
to perform great music from a wide range of sources in the ruins of the camp
itself. Except that they didn’t. It was studio-spliced job. The performers were
miming to recordings made elsewhere. This meant that there was no compulsion
about the music, and it was an opportunity thrown away.
Fortunately, there was more to the programme than the music. We saw deeply
affecting interviews with musicians who had performed in the camp orchestras.
This raised profound questions about the part played by of music itself.
In softening the horror, ensuring that the inmates marched to their slave
labour or to the death ovens with a semblance of order, and covering the
screams of the tortured, were the musicians colluding with evil? Was music
itself being “degraded and raped” as one survivor put it? Or did it provide a
tiny crumb of hope and beauty for those about to die?
In comparison, The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon (BBC2,
Friday), a series showing the recently discovered cache of films of everyday
life in northern England in 1902-4, is essentially innocent. It is a portrayal
of a world that, despite its deprivations, had not yet been blown apart by the
First World War.
It is presented by Dan Cruikshank, whose breathy enthusiasm drives me to
distraction. There is far too much of him, and also of a series of stupid
reconstructions of the film-makers themselves, done in the style of a
But the film itself is pure gold. It evokes a lost society just beyond our
grasp, showing prototypes of our culture with recognisable points of contact
with the world we inhabit, yet lost for ever.