TV reviews: Colouring Light: Brain Clarke - An Artist Apart & Faster than the Speed of Light?

Experiments with light can astound and delight us aesthetically and intellectually, says Gary Day

October 27, 2011

Credit: Miles Cole

The best artists are time travellers (Colouring Light: Brain Clarke - An Artist Apart, BBC Four, Monday 17 October, 10pm). They go back to the past to change how we see the present. That's what Brian Clarke does with stained glass windows. The medieval church blazed with heavenly radiance. But we have learned to sift the light, to see its beauty but doubt its truth. Brian's creations grace all kinds of buildings, from those where prayer is murmured to those where policies are hammered out.

The medieval window let light in, but not out. Brian's do both. There are no saints in his work, but there are skulls. And something wonderful too, first glimpsed when Brian was 12 in York Minster. An alternate reality. An undiscovered country from whose bourne we may one day be able to return, if we can learn to fly fast enough.

And according to recent research, that could happen one day (Faster than the Speed of Light?, BBC Two, Wednesday 19 October, 9pm). Scientists at the snappily named Oscillation Project with Emulsion-Tracking Apparatus (OPERA) think they have found the impossible, a particle that travels faster than light. A collection of atoms known as Professor Marcus du Sautoy popped up to explain. Apparently there was this clerk at a patent office in Bern who spent a lot of time making up thought experiments instead of getting on with his job. One of them had something to do with looking at his reflection in a mirror and wondering if it would disappear should he travel towards it at the speed of light.

Well, of course it would. He'd knock the glass over as he sped past it for a start. No, that's not the answer. Ah me. Wrong again. If he's travelling at the speed of light, then the photons speeding from his face to the mirror need to go even quicker. Which they can't, because this bloke said they couldn't and used a lot of equations to prove it. Most of them produced in 1905, an annus mirabilis for science. Marcus held aloft another collection of atoms arranged into one of the four papers Einstein published that year. "Look," said Marcus. "When I write a paper, I usually refer to about 30 other pieces of work, but Einstein doesn't have a single reference." You see, there is such a thing as originality.

Marcus could see I was still having trouble with Einstein's theory of special relativity and took me to a train station. He pulled a torch out on the platform, which, in these security-conscious times, could have got him arrested. Somehow, Marcus managed to convince the collection of atoms known as the guard that he wasn't a terrorist but a mathematician who was demonstrating that a beam of light does not travel any faster just because it's on a train.

Which reminds me. Did I say that Brian had caught the 4.15pm to his past? To Oldham School of Arts and Crafts, in fact. It was dedicated to "the moral and intellectual culture" of the people of the town. That contains at least three words that you won't find in a university mission statement.

It's the neutrino that has breasted light at the tape. The scientists who measured its passage from Cern in Switzerland to Gran Sasso in Italy have checked and rechecked their measurements for errors, but can't find any. So they have submitted their data to other scientists. If they can't find any mistakes then, as Professor John Ellis put it, "we are going to have tear up all the physics books and start again". Marcus was more sanguine. As a mathematician he is used to dealing with ideas that are impossible in reality. For now, at any rate. He came up with some ingenious solutions. The one I could understand was that in extreme conditions, the laws of physics break down; the one I couldn't was that a particle could form once it's gone beyond the speed of light. A physicist said string theory would tie everything together. Enlightenment deferred, as always.

If you were a Monty Python fan, you would have enjoyed Holy Flying Circus (BBC Four, Wednesday 19 October, 9pm) - a dramatisation of the controversy surrounding Life of Brian, a satire on religious credulity, not a story about Mr Clarke. It was done in typical style. Which is to say that it was more frantic than funny. Monty Python's Flying Circus was afflicted by modernism's mania for self-reference, and so was this film. But it was well acted. In one scene, a newspaper vendor told John Cleese he wouldn't dare write such a film about Muslims. "But this is 1979," said Cleese. It was a nod to time travel, and an admission that things are getting darker. Well, the clocks do go back on Sunday.

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