National Geographic Channel’s Genius: A Biography of Albert Einstein.

This week the final 2-hour installment of the first season of the new National Geographic Channel’s Series Genius was broadcast. The first season was a biography of the most famous scientist of the twentieth century, Albert Einstein.

Nat Geo’s Genius: A biography of Albert Einstein (Credit : National Geographic)

The series was produced by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer through their company Imagine Entertainment. Starring Geoffrey Rush as the older Einstein and Johnny Flynn as young Einstein the 10 part series gives an account of Einstein’s life based on the Book ‘Einstein: His Life and Universe’ by Walter Isaacson.

Two Einstein’s for the Price on One. Geoffrey Rush on the Left and Johnny Flynn on the Right (Credit National Geographic)

The first half of the of biography dealt with Einstein’s relationship with his first wife and fellow scientist Mileva Maric’. Now just how much Mileva contributed to Albert’s development of Relativity and his other achievements is a very controversial question. There are many people that believe that if Mileva had not been a woman she would have achieved much as a scientist and that she probably deserved a share of Albert’s Nobel Prize. In Genius they show how Mileva worked with Albert, and was treated as little more than a resource by him. Nevertheless the great insights, the famous thought experiments are portrayed as Albert’s only. This may be as accurate a description of the truth as we can manage after the passing of so many years.

The second half of Genius contrasts Einstein’s strong pacifism against the lives of two of his colleagues at the Kaiser William II institute, Fritz Haber and Phillip Lenard. Haber was a chemist who was born a Jew like Einstein but throughout his life he always considered himself more German than Jewish and converted to Christianity. Haber greatest scientific achievement, for which he received the Nobel Chemistry Prize, was his development of a process to produce ammonia gas out of nitrogen in the atmosphere and hydrogen gas. Although few people know about Haber’s work it this is really one of the greatest discoveries in all of history. The commercial production of ammonia is the foundation of the development of all artificial fertilizers! Half of the people alive today eat food that is grown with fertilizer based on Haber’s discovery!

During World War I Haber also used his discovery to manufacture explosives and more than that he became Germany’s expert in the development of poison gas as a weapon of war! (In Genius Haber is depicted as supervising the first poison gas attack whereas most historical sources have him witnessing it) Neither of these two services to Germany did him any good though, for when the Nazi’s came to power all anyone remembered was that he was born a Jew!

Phillip Lenard, on the other hand may have been a great scientist, his work was instrumental in the later development of vacuum tube amplifiers and the Cathode ray picture tube, but he was a vicious anti-Semite throughout his life. (In Genius Lenard despises Einstein from the moment he hears the name) During Hitler’s reign Lenard was made the head of ‘German / Aryan Science’ and worked hard to prevent the teaching of relativity in Germany. After Hitler’s fall Lenard was a broken man who died only two years later, his reputation today is still that of a racist not a scientist.

But Einstein’s strong pacifisms got him in a lot of trouble as well. In Germany during WWI he was criticized from not helping to defend the fatherland and when the Nazi’s came to power he got out as quick as he could. Even in the US however his outspoken views got him in continual trouble with J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. Einstein never actually worked on the atomic bomb project because he was never trusted with a security clearance.

I guess the lesson to be learned is just that war never really does anyone any good! Now there’s a revolutionary theory!

I do have a few criticisms of Genius. Two physicists who do not appear at all but WHO SHOULD are Karl Schwarzschild and Satyendra Nath Bose both of whom did important work related to Einstein’s. And let’s not forget Hendrik Antoon Lorentz whose work gave Einstein the foundation on which relativity is built! He definitely deserved greater mention.

National Geographic has just announced that there will be a second season of Genius. The subject of next season will be the artist Pablo Picasso. I suppose I’ll watch, at least the first episode but since he’s not a scientist I may not comment on it. We’ll have to see.


Genius on the Nat Geo Channel – A biography of Albert Einstein

The National Geographic Channel has begun a new series that they’re calling ‘Genius’. The series will be a ten episode biography of Physicist Albert Einstein and stars Johnny Flynn as Einstein in his teens and twenties and Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush as the older Einstein.

Genius on the National Geographic Channel

The series is being shown Tuesdays at 9PM on Nat Geo and the third episode is coming up this week.

The creative team behind ‘Genius’ are Producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, the same team that brought us the series “Mars” back last November and December. See my posts of 15Nov16 and 20Dec16 for my reviews. With this cast and behind the camera team you know the series is going to be a first rate production and so far it certainly is.

Now I’m a big fan of Albert Einstein, but I’m not a big fan of biographies. For example, it’s well known that Einstein was not a good student in school. He was the sort of person who learned better on his own, investigating the things that interested him and ignoring anything he found boring. Of course this is true of a lot of us, grammar bored the life out of me and was the bane of my existence back in grade school. This is a common aspect of many person’s schooling, movies and plays have been written about it so why go over it again?

In ‘Genius’ this conflict is the central plot of the first two episodes. Starting school in Germany young Albert finds his instructors to be so stuffy, there’s a quick scene of students memorizing the law of cosines. Transferring to Switzerland he now finds the instructors there refuse to even discuss the latest theories about molecules by Ludwig Boltzmann. We teach facts here, Einstein is told, not theoretical fantasies. Hum, could that be a foreshadowing of some of the conflicts Einstein would have because of his own theories. What do you think? I can’t imagine professors refusing to even allow their students to consider such new ideas.

In my opinion that’s the problem with biographies, the biographer tries to find a coherent theme running through a famous person’s life so they exaggerate details that reinforce the theme and ignore anything that doesn’t. I think a person’s life is too chaotic for that to work.

Then there are the personal details. I didn’t know that Einstein’s family moved to Milan, Italy while Albert was in school and nor in all honesty do I care. I also did not know that Einstein had a girlfriend, whose heart he broke, before meeting his first wife Mileva Maric’, and again, I don’t care. That’s just me, Einstein’s theories are interesting, his love life is not.

There is however, one very controversial part of Einstein’s love life that will probably receive at lot of attention in the next couple of episodes. There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about how much influence did Mileva have on Albert’s groundbreaking papers in 1905. It’s quite possible that Mileva contributed but the evidence and consensus among historians of science is that she listened to Albert’s ideas more than initiating her own. It will be interesting to see how this controversy is handled in ‘Genius’

I will also be interested in seeing how some of the other scientists who contributed to relativity theory are treated. In particular I want to see if Hendrik Lorentz is given credit for his work on electromagnetic theory and it’s influence on the Special Theory. Indeed when you study Relativity Theory the first equations you learn are the ‘Lorentz Transformation’. Einstein did not meet Lorentz until after publishing his theories so will the show even mention Hendrik?

Nevertheless I will keep watching ‘Genius’ and I certainly recommend it. It’s well done and a show about the life of a great scientist is certainly an improvement over 99.9% of what passes for entertainment on TV.