David Tennant and Andy Serkis star in Einstein And Eddington later this month, a one-off drama for BBC Two based on the intertwined lives of two of the most significant men in 20th-century science. Here Tennant discusses Eddington’s fascination with numbers, his Quaker beliefs and his view of Einstein’s Theory.
A BBC/HBO co-production, Einstein And Eddington takes a closer look at the story behind the creation of Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and the personal lives of the men behind it. Here Tennant discusses Eddington’s fascination with numbers, his Quaker beliefs and his view of Einstein’s Theory.
Tell us about Eddington.
“He is already recognised within his field and has become the Director of the Royal Observatory when the story starts. This is a man who has been recognised at quite an early age as someone who is quite sharp and who is at the forefront of astrophysics. He is described in the script by someone as being ‘the best measuring man’ in England, and that is very much his thing. He was obsessed with the minutiae of quantification and, as a kid, he tried to count all the words in The Bible. He liked to specify the fact of our existence in numbers.”
Tell us about his Quaker beliefs.
“It’s certainly what motivated him. His Quakerism and belief in God was fundamental to him and everything he did, particularly with his insistence not to go to war. I don’t think for him that was a great moral battle, he just knows what is morally correct in his version of the universe and that’s simply how it is to him.
“His religion started to count against him in later life because that became unfashionable. His life was dedicated to marrying science to God – to prove that, far from being mutually exclusive, we are mutually inclusive – and, as time went on, moving into the Thirties and Forties, it became a less-fashionable viewpoint to take. Science became more secular, I suppose. But, for Eddington, there was never a conflict between the two.”
As a religious man, how did Eddington cope with challenging Newtonian physics?
“Well that’s his big defining moment. Having accepted Newtonian physics as the way of explaining the universe, he gets a sniff of something pure, he gets a sniff of something more complicated, bigger – more anarchic actually – but ultimately truer.
“It’s not a generally easy decision to make, to fly in the face of received opinion, to fly in the face of all his contemporaries and, at the same time, fly in the face of political sensitivities [because Einstein was German], because they are fighting a war he doesn’t want to be involved in. There are all these things he has to combat.”
As you touched upon earlier, as a Quaker, he was a pacifist and refused to go to war. Was that a difficult and unpopular decision?
“We used some of his actual words in the script and I think that is very instructive. He got let off [active service] the first time round because Cambridge said that they needed him for research, but then as the war went on and the numbers of available men were dwindling, there was a second round of conscription, and he was called again.
“He did have to go in front of a committee and justify himself, and he said, ‘I simply can’t believe that God wants me go out and slaughter his people’. It’s a very persuasive argument, this idea that we have to go to war for some kind of belief, that we are following what God wants for us. But they believed that in Germany, too, so who’s right? It’s a persuasive and brilliant argument.”
How much research did you do for the role? Did you manage to find out much about Eddington?
“In some ways he is a great, forgotten man, which is why this is an intriguing story to tell. There is one biography which I found and that was very helpful, although there are elements of his private life which are skirted around.
“The story we tell is of a man who couldn’t quite face the fact that he was gay.”
The script tells of his possible unrequited love for a man who has gone to war. What’s your take on that?
“It adds to that tension and that becomes the truth he doesn’t pursue. The moment he doesn’t tell William how he feels, he doesn’t pursue that particular truth. I think that haunts him, in a way, and pushes him to pursue the more difficult choice elsewhere.”
Tell us about his relationship with Winnie, who, in the film, is a very glamorous sister.
“She is a very glamorous sister, although we found a photo of her and she wasn’t quite as glamorous as Rebecca Hall! One has to make certain assumptions about that relationship, as it’s unusual. Perhaps it was less unusual then, that a brother and a sister could live together as husband and wife.
“It was interesting playing the scenes with Rebecca because we’d often stop ourselves and say, ‘Are we playing this as husband and wife or brother and sister?’ and wonder how much difference there would be in all the years of living together and depending on each other.”
Einstein and Eddington were very different men. Why do you think they came together to solve this great scientific mystery?
“What I loved about the story is the sense of beautiful symmetry between these two characters who are almost total opposites, and yet … they are relatively bohemian within their worlds.
“Eddington is far from bohemian, but there is an unconventionality to him. It’s not anarchy because his life is very straight and very buttoned-down, very controlled, but because he has a certain way of thinking, he becomes an anarchist in a sense, whereas Einstein is anarchic and crazy, but, because of his brilliance, he becomes, ultimately, conventional. It is fascinating to set them off against each other.”
How did you learn about the General Theory of Relativity?
“I have read a bit. I’ve found lots in the script quite helpful in terms of coming to an understanding about it. It’s about reprogramming your brain because, whenever you start talking about space, you are talking about distances that are so beyond our comprehension that I can’t even begin to breathe!
“You look at the pages of Einstein’s 1905 paper and your mind boggles as to how people’s brains can think in equations that way. Maths was never my favourite subject but I have the beginnings of the grasp of some of the concepts.
“It gets so philosophical sometimes. You start to think back to the Big Bang and the moment of singularity. That is such a concept that is beyond our ken. That moment of singularity… When was it? How can it exist?”
What would you say Einstein And Eddington is ultimately about?
“It’s about a moment in time, it’s also about human endeavour, it’s about those moments when people step up to the plate. I think it also becomes about your own moments in life when you are faced with those decisions. Eddington managed to do that with Einstein.”
BBC Two, week commencing 22nd November