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Einstein’s light dances and spins in Leiden

The documentary Einstein’s Light by director Nickolas Barris shows in a dazzling manner what scientific breakthroughs resulted from the special friendship between Albert Einstein and the Leiden physicist Hendrik Antoon Lorentz. The documentary premiered at the Leiden International Film Festival on 2 November.

Racing through Collider beam pipes

Gracefully the light dances across the screen. We dive through planetary orbits and float over gas rings vibrating to the sounds of Mozart. While violinist Joshua Bell plays his instrument, light paths twist over green fields and gently budding plants. We speed past asteroids, whirling and colliding in our solar system. At breakneck speed we fly into Rembrandt’s Night Watch and race through the beam pipes of the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest scientific experiment.

Science and art shoulder to shoulder

There is almost no way around it: in Einstein’s Light, by the American director Nickolas Barris, science and art stand shoulder to shoulder. This is no coincidence. These are after all both disciplines that offer new insights, as theoretical physicist and artist Robbert Dijkgraaf states in the film.

The Einstein's Light trailer is the official trailer of the International Year of Light 2015.

Spiritual heirs of Albert Einstein

Einstein en Lorentz in 1921 in Leiden.
Einstein and Lorentz in 1921 in Leiden.

It is therefore appropriate that Barris combines artistic scenes, full of abstract and impressionistic images, with conversations with today’s prominent scientists. These include Leiden astronomers such as Vincent Icke, Tim de Zeeuw and Ewine van Dishoeck, but also physicists such as Stan Bentvelsen (UvA) and Robbert Dijkgraaf (Institute Advanced Study Princeton). They are the spiritual heirs of Albert Einstein and Hendrik Antoon Lorentz, whose close professional friendship forms the basis of this documentary. Einstein’s Light shows how deep Einstein and Lorentz’ mutual admiration was, and how in Leiden that admiration gave rise to something special. Leiden became the location where the elder physicist Lorentz definitively passed the baton to Einstein’s new generation.

Academic freedom

This happened despite the great political and moral unrest of the First World War, in an atmosphere of academic freedom and international cooperation. It resulted in Einstein’s theory of relativity quickly taking root in Leiden, and from here conquering the rest of the world. It is precisely that atmosphere that Leiden was known for, according to Dirk van Delft, director of the science Museum Boerhaave in Leiden. Leiden was after all the place where many free thinkers, such as Descartes en Spinoza, achieved success. ‘And Spinoza can be connected to Einstein, because that was his favourite philosopher,’ says Van Delft.

Nature loves symmetry

Einstein’s Light celebrates such symmetries. The film looks for them in the lives of Einstein and Lorentz, but also between relativity and quantum mechanics, both of which originated from the study of light. ‘It is wonderful that nature loves symmetry as much as we do,’ Dijkgraaf asserts. This all amounts to a documentary that interests, convinces and leaves a lasting impression. Not only because of the special story that took place in Leiden, but especially because of the pleasant way in which the imagery harmoniously reinforces the spoken language.

(George van Hal)

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Leiden University has contributed to the film as part of its 440-year anniversary celebrations. After its opening night, the film will be shown twice at the Leiden International Film Festival: 

Thursday 5 November, 17.00 hrs. Kijkhuis 1

Sunday 8 November, 14.15 hrs. Trianon 1

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