(Part I. Part II in progress…)

Agora won several Goya Awards for production (set, costume, cinematography, special effects, etc) and its screenplay. The film has received mixed reviews in the United States. Roger Ebert wrote in the Sun-Times,

This is a movie about ideas, a drama based on the ancient war between science and superstition. At its center is a woman who in the fourth century A.D. was a scientist, mathematician, philosopher, astronomer and teacher, respected in Egypt, although women were not expected to be any of those things.

while V.A. Musetto complained in the NY Post,

The story revolves around Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), a real-life philosopher whose proclamations about the sun being the center of the universe ran counter to religious beliefs of the time.

There are a few exciting battle sequences and the sets are lavish, but mostly the film meanders aimlessly for more than two hours.

Then Patrick Goldstein interviewed the director for the Los Angeles Times during Cannes,

At several points during the film, he takes us swooping up and away from Alexandria, allowing the audience to see the world from high above, as if watching from the cockpit of a satellite orbiting the Earth. I asked him why he chose that perspective. “For me, this wasn’t just the story of a woman, but the story of a city — and a civilization, and a planet — so I wanted to find a way visually to capture that. When you see things from a distance, you can see how relative things are. The ideas that so inflame people up close, that feel so scary and menacing, they look very different when you see them from a different perspective.”

The words “center,” “revolve,” “meander aimlessly,” “perspective,” “relative,” as well as other astronomical vocabulary pepper the reviews with various denigrating puns or praises, depending on the critic’s general assumptions concerning film aesthetics. I find it amusing that the reviewers – much like the besieged students in my favorite scene – come close to discovering a correct interpretation of the film’s message, but ultimately fall back on preconceived, fallacious notions.

After the Christians force the students inside the library walls, a group of scholars rest in the courtyard overlooking the stars. Hypatia reflects on a point raised by Orestes earlier in the film; he noted the Ptolomaic system, which places Earth at the center of the universe, seems over-complicated. The universe ought to be much more simple, he contended. Hypatia examines the sky, taking her mind off the day’s trauma, and hypothesizes (1) a round earth and (2) circular planetary motion around the sun. An older scholar reminds Hypatia and her students of a lost heliocentric theory, but then Davus the slave enjoins them with an astute observation: if the sun were the center of the universe, why wouldn’t objects on Earth fall with respect to the position of the sun? And why wouldn’t the Earth experience some kind of friction – like strong winds – as it moved in a circle around the sun? They let the matter drop.

Hypatia later conducts an experiment to test Davus’ questions. She predicts that if a sack falls from the mast of a moving ship, the sack will land a certain distance from the base of the mast. The sack falls and… lands at the base of the mast (3). Hypatia doesn’t know what this means, and let’s the matter go for the time being.

Finally, Hypatia realizes if the Sun is the center of the universe, and since the sun appears at different distances from the Earth at different seasons, (4) there’s no reason planetary orbits should be a perfect circle. The night before her death, she demonstrates (6) the principle of an elliptical orbit by tracing an ellipse with two foci – one illuminated to represent the sun.

  1. the earth is round
  2. planetary motion is more regularly circular than any other pattern
    • Why do objects appear to obey laws with respect to one system (Earth) and not another (Sun)?
    • If objects obeyed laws with respect to multiple (n > 1) systems, would there not be friction?
  3. if an object falls, it lands with reference to the sub-system in which it falls
  4. planetary motion does not move in a precise circle

Hypathia needs to make only one further observation (gravitational attraction) to hypothesize a theory of general relativity. As Einstein puts it, general relativity follows logically from the Galilean laws in conjunction with Kepler’s ellipses and Newton’s physics:

The gravitational mass of a body is equal to its inertial mass.

It is true that this important law had hitherto been recorded in mechanics, but it had not been interpreted. A satisfactory interpretation can be obtained only if we recognize the following fact: the same quality of a body manifests itself according to circumstances as “inertia” or as “weight” (lit. “heaviness”).

That’s why the Earth seems flat and seems the center of the universe – we naturally mistake inertia with gravity.

Thus the movie rehashes several hundred years of astrophysics in fascinating detail. I doubt much of the audience followed the progression.

(Read Part II)


3 Responses to Agora

  1. Thanks for pointing out the astrophysics rehash. I saw Agora when it first came out in NYC and DID NOT follow that progression. Mainly, because I felt the science was anachronistic. It’s unlikely Hypatia held beliefs about heliocentricism different than her peers, but I thought it worked as an artistic metaphor in the movie. Amenabar distorts more than science in service to his art (the Library didn’t end that way and Synesius wasn’t a jerk), but that’s what artists do. I go to the movies for entertainment, not science or history.

    For people who want to know more about the historical Hypatia, I highly recommend a very readable biography “Hypatia of Alexandria” by Maria Dzielska (Harvard University Press, 1995). I also have a series of posts on the historical events and characters in the film at my blog – not a movie review, just a “reel vs. real” discussion.

    • Jared says:

      Thanks for you comment; I’m glad you found the rehash interesting.

      It’s actually possible that Hypatia held heliocentric beliefs. A few Greeks philosophers did, including one who estimated the exact circumference of the Earth (his name escapes me at the moment). And you have to realize, Galileo and Einstein formulated their theories of gravity and the cosmos without data! They both simply came up with logically rigorous arguments to prove their ideas, and this past century’s research in astrophysics has provided definitive results to back up their central claims. (Newton, on the other hand, relied in part on the observational data gathered by Kepler and Brahe.) Given Hypatia’s wonderful argumentative skills, you can imagine her defending a heliocentric model in tune with Galileo.

      I was wondering about the actual end of the Library; I had thought it was destroyed much later. Thanks! and thanks for the reading suggestions!

      • Hi Jared. Thanks so much for listing my blog in your blogroll! I’ll be sure to reciprocate. I just ran across this post by a medieval scholar that sheds some light on Hypatia’s empirical thinking in the movie: Was Hypatia of Alexandria a Scientist — as opposed to a mathematician for which he gives her full credit.

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