The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Explained in a Pioneering 1923 Silent Film

Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Explained in a Pioneering 1923 Silent Film

“This is a participatory universe,” physicist John Archibald Wheeler, who popularized the term black hole, wrote in his influential theory known as It from Bit, asserting that “physics gives rise to observer-participancy; observer-participancy gives rise to information; and information gives rise to physics” — an assertion he could not have made without Einstein’s theory of relativity and its groundbreaking insight into how the laws of physics appear to different observers with different frames of reference. Wheeler was largely responsible for reinvigorating scientific interest in Einstein’s theory after WWII, but the task of engaging the lay public with relativity — a theory that would forever change our understanding of time — was of a wholly different order. Abstract ideas can be slippery to grasp, and what cannot be grasped cannot be held in interested regard — this, perhaps, is why the arts have always been an invaluable ally to science, making the abstract not only comprehensible but beautiful and therefore worthy of regard.

Albert Einstein

Thirteen years before mathematician Lillian Lieber composed her poetic primer on relativity, which Einstein himself heartily lauded as an uncommon feat of popularizing science, a short article appeared in the August 1922 issue of Scientific American claiming that the young art of cinema could never adequately convey Einstein’s ideas to the lay public. (Like any new technology and art form, film drew a chorus of complaints, none more rhetorically acerbic than Virginia Woolf’s: “The eye licks it all up instantaneously, and the brain, agreeably titillated, settles down to watch things happening without bestirring itself to think.”) Scientific American cited the example of a German film about relativity produced earlier that year, which the magazine deemed a commercial failure.

The American brothers Max and David Fleischer, who were soon to produce such pioneer cartoons as Superman and Betty Boop, leapt at the challenge. They teamed up with the astronomer and popular science writer Garrett Putnam Serviss to produce a cinematic companion to Serviss’s book on relativity, drawing on the original German film Scientific American had dismissed. The resulting twenty-minute silent film — one of the world’s first motion-picture science primers — was a consummate success among American audiences and Einstein himself praised it for making abstract ideas intelligible.

Albert Einstein's Zurich notebook, containing his early lecture notes on relativity (Albert Einstein Archive)
Albert Einstein’s Zurich notebook, containing his early lecture notes on relativity (Albert Einstein Archive)

In an era when “the mechanical Demon has practically abolished the horse and buggy,” the film proudly proclaims that “the miracles of yesterday are the commonplaces of today” and portrays a rudimentary rocket launching a man clad in standard pilot attire into the cosmos. (With the first solo transatlantic flight still years away, aviation itself was a relative novelty at the time and the first manned spaceflight was decades into the future.) A proto-CGI rendering imagines Earth seen from space forty-five years before the landmark Earthrise photograph — our first glimpse of our home planet seen from space. Through various animated thought experiments, the Fleischer brothers demonstrate that motion, direction, size, and speed are all relative to the frame of reference, then employ an inventive analogy involving two pistols and a projectile to the Moon to illustrate the one notable exception central to Einstein’s theory — the constancy of the speed of light. They explain Einstein’s then-radical notion that space itself is curved and objects of large gravitational mass, such as the Sun, bend light, stemming from his addition of a fourth dimension — time — to our three familiar spatial dimensions to produce the even more radical notion of spacetime.

What emerges is as much a time-capsule of early cinema and technology as a timeless commentary on the most abiding animated forces of scientific breakthrough. In telling the particular story of Einstein’s relativity, trapped in the era’s technological and scientific horizons of possibility, the film explores broader questions like how common-sense perception habitually blinds us to the nature of reality and what leaps of imagination it takes to unblind ourselves.

Many obstacles had to be overcome, one of the greatest being the deception of our senses. One by one, Einstein sweeps away every accepted notion. For instance, he makes the astounding assertion that “Space is bent“! This is the idea which Einstein said only twelve men in the world could understand… This theory has opened an unlimited field for speculations, dreams, and fantasies… And now, with the eyes of the world turned upon him, there sits in a quiet little study in Europe, a genius delving ever-deeper into the mysteries of the Universe.

Complement with Einstein’s legacy in a graphic novel and the little-known story of how a Hungarian teenager equipped Einstein with the building blocks of relativity, then revisit Lillian Lieber’s delightful illustrated primer on non-Euclidean geometry — the revolution in mathematics without which Einstein could not have bridged space and time into his own revolutionary notion of spacetime.

HT Open Culture

Published June 11, 2018




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