Bringing ‘Genius’ To Television

7:14 minutes

Albert Einstein and his second wife Elsa Einstein. Credit: [Public Domain], via Library of Congress
In 2007 author Walter Isaacson changed the way we feel about Albert Einstein with his book Einstein: His Life and Universe. The seminal biography was lauded for its comprehensive depiction of the beloved, messy-haired father of modern physics. “I wanted to weave together the personality, the personal life, the political thought, and the science,” Isaacson told Ira in an interview from that year. Looking at Einstein through each of those lenses, he said, “you see a willingness to challenge authority and be nonconformist.” Now Isaacson joins Ira to discuss what it was like bringing the character of Einstein to life on the small screen for Season 1 of National Geographic’s scripted series Genius.

[One hundred years of general relativity.]

Segment Guests

Walter Isaacson

Walter Isaacson is the author of Elon Musk, and a professor of History at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. When I say, Albert Einstein, the first thing that comes to mind is what? An image of messy gray hair? e equals m-c squared? That is the Einstein we know as the scientist. But what do we know about Einstein, the person? The father of modern physics was also humorous, irreverent, romantic, impatient, and a musician, because he was, after all, human.

And that human side of Einstein is what’s on display in National Geographic’s new series, Genius, based on the 2007 biography by Walter Isaacson, Einstein, His Life and Universe. And Walter joins us now. He’s president and CEO of the Aspen Institute also– very busy guy. Walter, thanks for taking time to be with us today.

WALTER ISAACSON: It’s always good to be back with you, Ira. Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Your biography did an excellent job of marrying Einstein-the-scientist with Einstein-the-person, his human attributes. How well do you think Genius, the video, is portraying the same dynamic?

WALTER ISAACSON: Well I think it’s great. Because with Einstein, there was sort of a unified field theory between his personality– which was rebellious and impish and sometimes quite human– and his science, which was also very rebellious and visualized things. So I think that, when you see him with the passions he had as a human being and also the passions he had as a scientist, it works together well.

Both Geoffrey Rush, who plays the older Einstein, and Johnny Flynn– they really capture what I hoped to put in the book, which was that connection of the personal to the science.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, you made me go back and read chapters in your book, just to look at the stuff I was seeing on the screen. It was very well done. And in particular, the second episode focused on the women in his life. Was the intent to make these women more central characters? To show the humanity? And also, what was evident is this struggle that women had trying to become scientists in those days.

WALTER ISAACSON: Well, exactly. Especially, Mileva Maric, who is in that second episode, she was the only woman in the physics class of Einstein at the Zurich Polytech. And Einstein falls madly in love with her. They have an illegitimate child. Then, they go on and get married and have two children.

But she also serves as a sounding-board, especially with the mathematics of special relativity. Now, it was pretty amazing for her to do that as a woman, a Serbian woman, in Switzerland at the time. And I think that’s captured very well in this movie.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because he says, he’s falling in love with her for her brain basically.

WALTER ISAACSON: Oh, absolutely. With all due respect to Mileva Maric, she certainly was better known for her brains than her looks. She had a bit of a limp. She was not– but Einstein felt totally in love with her, because she had one of those amazing sort of visual minds that could look at Maxwell’s equations and figure out how a light wave would look if you tried to catch up with it– all those things that Einstein was trying to do.

And so it’s very inspiring. I hope, for women– I think I do a couple of chapters on Mileva Maric in my book. Because I believe that’s important. I don’t think this movie overplayed it.

IRA FLATOW: Let me ask you, as a journalist and someone who writes about scientists, we’re seeing a lot of famous scientists in films these days, from Alan Turing to Stephen Hawking to Einstein. We’re seeing science on television in The Big Bang Theory, in popular culture. What is driving all of this new interest?

WALTER ISAACSON: Well, this is wonderful, right? Maybe it’s, Science Friday has finally caught on, and everybody wants to emulate you. I actually do think that it’s really great that we’re making heroes out of scientists. I think, for a long time– and Einstein’s partly to blame for this. Beginning in the ’20s and ’30s and ’40s, science seemed to be very, very difficult, something that an ordinary person couldn’t understand– quantum theory, relativity, the two great theories that Einstein created.

And so science became intimidating. But in a day and age in which technology and science and the connection of science to creativity is what’s driving our economy, I think people realize, oh yeah, it would be useful to know what the most innovative and what the most creative scientists thought like. So it’s like Sputnik. It’s sort of, I think, the digital revolution has helped kick up a notch the interest in science.

IRA FLATOW: Well, the Sputnik certainly kicked up a notch the interest in politics back in the ’60s. Do you think these films and series can influence, in a more positive way, how politicians view science?

WALTER ISAACSON: It would be very important for that to happen. I urge anybody who’s watching this series or reading my book and they say, wow, this is amazing, to realize that, if you cut off the National Science Foundation, if you cut off basic research at universities or really reduce the dollars, we will not have people understand the application, say, of quantum theory to semiconductor materials. So you won’t end up with transistors and microchips.

Science is the seed corn that allows us to have wonderful inventions. So I hope this interest in science will cause people from Congress to local constituents to say, why would we decimate science in America?

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hm Let me turn back to some of your other books and, in particular, your book about innovators, which I just loved also. Why was Einstein not included in one of those chapters on innovators? What set him apart from the Steve Jobs and these other people in that book?

WALTER ISAACSON: Well, first of all, Einstein was very much theoretical. He didn’t try to apply, say, quantum theory or relativity to do things that other people– like at Bell Labs– create lasers and microchips and GPS systems, all of these things that derive from Einstein’s theories. Secondly, I wrote The Innovators as a balance to Einstein. Because The Innovators is about teamwork. It’s about how people collaborate in order to apply science.

Einstein is one of the rare examples of somebody who was rather a loner in the pursuit of his science, partly because of the anti-Semitism that you see both in the movie and in my book. And others– he didn’t have close colleagues at the Prussian Academy. But Einstein was less of an applied innovator than he was somebody who saw the beauty of Nature’s brush strokes in a theoretical sense.

IRA FLATOW: Mm, it’s beautifully captured in your book, of course, and in the National Geographic series, Genius. Walter, thank you very much for taking time to be with us today, as always. You are always welcome on the show.

WALTER ISAACSON: It’s always good to be back. Thanks so much.

IRA FLATOW: Thanks a lot. Walter Isaacson, President and CEO of the Aspen Institute and author of the book Einstein, His Life and Universe.

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