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Back to basics

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 enrichment.

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 music-hall turn.

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.

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