National Geographic Channel’s “Genius” TV series on Albert Einstein spends almost as much time on the famous physicist’s love life as it does on his theory of relativity – and his most recent biographer, Walter Isaacson, says that’s just as it should be.
“In my biography, I begin and end by saying there’s a ‘unified field theory’ that connects Einstein’s personality with his physics, and the genius of the TV series ‘Genius’ is that it shows this,” said Isaacson, who has written biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Steve Jobs as well as “Einstein: His Life and Universe.”
Isaacson said the series’ fourth episode, airing tonight, illustrates that point. It focuses on Einstein’s “miracle year” of 1905, when he laid out not just one but four groundbreaking scientific papers, including the theory of special relativity.
But it also dwells on Einstein’s tempestuous relationship with his first wife, Serbian-born physicist Mileva Maric, who helped him with his math.
Some critics wish the 10-part series had less sex and more science. Not Isaacson.
“It’s important to approach it the way National Geographic did, because Einstein’s personality is very connected to his science: rebellious, intense, creative, playful, and he breaks rules,” Isaacson said. “He breaks rules when it comes to his personal life, and he breaks rules when they’re handed down by Isaac Newton. … His loves and passions spanned the realms of people and physics.”
That’s not to say “Genius” is a soap opera. Isaacson is tickled to see that executive producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer (the duo behind “A Beautiful Mind,” another well-received science biopic) apparently followed his advice.
“I stressed that they should not stay away from the science, but that they should make it visual rather than involving formulas and equations,” Isaacson said, “because the genius of Einstein was that instead of merely learning formulas, he pushed himself to visualize how the universe works.”
The program plays off visualizations of what it’d be like to race a light wave, or time the sequence of lightning flashes from a moving train, or rolling balls across sheets of rubber. Einstein’s thought experiments have been laid out countless times before, but rarely as winningly as in “Genius.” (The light-wave race ends with a kiss.)
Isaacson doubts that there’ll ever be another physicist that towers over an age as much as Einstein did.
“I think in theoretical physics, you’re unlikely to have another singular genius like Einstein, because most of the advances are made by very large teams,” he said. “Whether it’s discovering the Higgs boson, or understanding gravity waves – all of which, by the way, continued to prove Einstein correct – science is much more of a collaborative endeavor these days.”
Isaacson himself stressed the collaborative approach to science in one of his books, “The Innovators,” which traced the development of computer science from the age of Ada Lovelace to the age of Bill Gates.
The future may or may not give rise to another Einstein, but Isaacson is certain that it’ll give rise to another Einstein biographer.
“There are certain subjects that I’ve written about – including Ben Franklin, Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and next, this fall, Leonardo da Vinci – who need to be repainted by generations of biographers,” he said. “Just as Leonardo wasn’t the first person to paint the Last Supper, these are the types of themes that can be repainted over and over again.”