2016 and 2017 were very exciting years in the fields of astronomy and physics as different laboratories strived to confirm the first observation of gravitational waves. The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) had observed the gravitational waves resulting from two black holes circling each other and merging. This event occurred millions of years ago and some of the resulting gravitational waves reached Earth in 2015. LIGO’s scientists were able to record this event and four others over the next 2 years. After other scientists were able to confirm the groundbreaking findings, the excitement of “what’s next” took over the scientific community. Documentarians Steve Brown and Timothy Wheeler explore the science of what happened and what it might mean in Chasing Einstein.
Chasing Einstein is a very fitting title for this documentary. The confirmation of gravitational waves serves as the jumping off point into two competing areas of research: the hunt for dark matter (matter is that not visible and may make up the mass of the majority of our universe) vs. a completely new theory of gravity (our current theories do not result in enough mass to explain what is happening in our universe). While the scientists perusing the new theory of gravity hope to be proven right, they support and cheer on those looking for evidence of dark matter. If the dark matter scientists find their evidence, then they are proven correct and new fields of science open up. If they do not, then the lack of evidence is a notch in favor of the need to rethink how gravity works. While neither side wants to be proven wrong due to the amount of time, energy, and personal sacrifice involved in conducting this research, both sides want answers. This creates an awesome dynamic of scientists being in direct conflict with each other but also supporting each other. It’s a dynamic not often presented in popular culture as competing scientific research is often used a source of conflict. It’s a fine balance and this film does a great job showcasing how you can be competitive, supportive, confident, and devastated, all at the same time.
Chasing Einstein starts at this momentous event in science, the confirmation of gravitational waves. Gravitational waves (ripples in spacetime created by large and violent events in space) were predicted by Einstein in his general theory of relativity. Today, Einstein is seen as a rock star in the science world and by the general public. His equation, E=mc2, is well known and his likeness has been used in many television shows and movies. Einstein’s ideas were far ahead of the science and technology that would be capable of conducting research and making observations to support or refute them. To live at a time when the technology has been created to confirm his theories is exciting! This is the theme running through Chasing Einstein, the excitement of what we could know, what we now know, and what we can discover next. The film does a good job of keeping an excited energy through the editing of the interviews, the score, the use of imagery, and globe hopping. While this documentary is a dive into gravitational waves, dark matter, and a new theory of gravity, everything is kept at a level everyone can appreciate, from those who dabble in science to those who only heard about gravitational waves from the news. Many people think that an informative scientific documentary means they’ll get a good nap in, but not here. Interviews with scientists Barry Barish, Elena Aprile, Erik and Herman Verlinde, Rainer Weiss, and others quickly get the audience vested in the research they’re each doing through the passion and fascination each interviewee conveys and give the audience enough of an understanding of the content to comfortably follow along and appreciate the significance of that research.
The film is off and running as soon as it starts. There’s no smooth easy intro here as it jumps right into an interview and dives into the science. That sets a great pace that only lets up about mid-way through. When the film does take some time to slow down, it’s during 2018’s total lunar eclipse as some of the scientists the audience has been following are in the northwest region of the United States to experience totality (when the moon fully covers in the sun in the sky). The film lets itself breathe here, not for the audience to digest content or relax after getting a crash course in physics, but to accentuate the wonder of what we observe in the natural world and how that wonder still has a firm grip on the scientists who devote their lives to researching and understanding why things work the way they do. Opting to allow a moment of wonder linger here tees up the audience for the latter half of the film and the emotional impacts of some of the final interviews and reveals.
While most audiences won’t recognize the names of the interviewees, they will be familiar with some of the locations: CERN, Columbia University, Princeton, the Mount Wilson Observatory, to name a few. Chasing Einstein does not put emphasis on these locations, but quick quips and tidbits from the interviewees provide small insights into these places where Einstein worked tirelessly at a desk (Princeton), where Hubble conducted some of his research (Mount Wilson Observatory), and where thousands of scientists come together to work on one of the largest scientific experiments to ever take place (CERN). These insights tie together what is being researched today with the work of the past that lead us to this point.
To that end, one thing Chasing Einstein does very well is provide the audience with just enough information about the science and the history for them to gain a better understanding and appreciation for it all without losing them by going too far into details. Some segments do leave you wanting them to dive in more, and that’s good. While Chasing Einstein doesn’t go in depth in every area, it inspires the audience, instilling a sense of curiosity and a desire to seek out information, the impetus for any good scientific research.
In select theaters beginning September 13th, 2019. For information on where to find a screening near you, head to the Chasing Einstein official website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.