Albert Einstein and the pitfalls of genius

A new TV series peels back the layers of Albert Einstein’s groundbreaking theories, and turbulent life and times.

Albert Einstein (photo credit: ACME / AFP)
Albert Einstein
(photo credit: ACME / AFP)
EVERYONE KNOWS that Albert Einstein transformed science. But what I didn’t expect when I first encountered his work a few years ago was the power of his ideas to transform one’s worldview. What’s utterly mind boggling, for example, is what he says about time.
Time is a convenient measure of nearly everything we do. We depend on it to organize our day and mark important events on the calendar. Because it has enveloped our lives to such a degree, time feels absolute. This very instant – right now – must be the same on Mars or anywhere else in the universe. Or is it? Enter Herr Einstein.
Einstein would show that time ticks differently on Earth than in other parts of the solar system and universe. How can this be? First off, heavy objects like the sun and planets (also black holes) distort or warp the space and time around them. As you move away from the mass of a planet, time should speed up. Conversely, as you move toward it, time slows down.
Researchers have supported this by experimenting with two very sophisticated clocks that can measure time to one-billionth of a second. After starting them in unison, one was placed at sea level and the other on a high mountain. After a few days, the one on the mountain was ticking slightly ahead of the one closer to the center of mass.
So, Mr. Einstein, you’re telling me that time is shaped by matter, and, because of this strange fact, there is no uniform tick-tock throughout the universe? I sensed my comfortingly stable view of the world melt away.
The idea makes an appearance in the opening scenes of Genius, a 10-part series by National Geographic that premieres April 25. A scholarly Einstein (played by Geoffrey Rush) stands at the head of a stately lecture hall lined with formally attired students. The year is 1922 and he is teaching in Berlin.
“What is time?” Einstein asks as the lecture begins. “Is it universal? ...Is there a master clock, so to speak, forging ahead like Mozart’s metronome? The answer, my friends, is no. Time is not absolute. In fact, for us, the living physicists, the distinction between the past, present and future is but a stubborn illusion.”
His words evoke agitation and gasps of astonishment. But the miniseries is not all grand theories and physics. Many scenes are devoted to Einstein’s private life. “We all know of his genius,” says director and executive producer Ron Howard in an interview on National Geographic’s website. “But Albert Einstein’s private life is far more complicated and dramatic than I ever realized. There is a very human story to be told here.”
And such a story involves plenty of failings.
“We know of the icon, Albert Einstein,” says executive producer Brian Grazer, “but we don’t really think he failed at things.”
As we cope, take risks and aspire to some- thing, Grazer explains, “we are failing at things often. And you get to see that is what he did.”
Along with his personal flaws, the historical context did not make life any easier for Einstein.
He lived during the two world wars, and, as a Jew in his native Germany, had to contend with the virulent antisemitism of the time. Based on Walter Isaacson’s well researched and exquisitely written book, “Einstein: His Life and Universe” (2007), the series covers the famed physicist’s en- tire life, offering a wealth of details and revealing anecdotes.
IT’S NOT a documentary, but rather National Geographic’s first scripted series (the channel describes it as a “global event” that will debut in 171 countries and 45 languages). With authentic sets and costumes, and filmed largely in Prague ‒ a city that emerged from World War II relatively unscathed and therefore exudes a historical aura ‒ it has the effect of trans - porting you back into the period, or periods to be exact, because it alternates frequently between two Einsteins ‒ a younger one played by Johnny Flynn and the elder played by Rush.
The series begins with scenes from Einstein’s days as a world-renowned scientist, when his graying hair took on a life of its own ‒ a look that has since become enshrined as “professorial.” The opening sequence is a burst of action as a close friend (Walther Rathenau, in real life) is gunned down by members of a nationalist organization. “This is for ruining Germany, Jew pig,” one assassin says as he throws a grenade into Rathenau’s bullet-ridden car.
The violence then cuts to a sex scene involving Einstein and his secretary, Betty. After the passion subsides, he asks her to move in with him. “You have a wife,” she says in a scolding tone. “Monogamy is not natural; it is a construct of religious authority,” he retorts. Betty shoots back, “For a man who is an expert on the universe, you don’t know the first thing about people, do you?” The story then shifts again. This time, we witness Einstein’s younger years when the aspiring scientist (played by Flynn) finds himself in a German boarding school. Unable to stand the rote learning demanded by teachers, he feigns illness and attempts to gain entry to a Swiss university against the wishes of his father who hopes his son will disavow theoretical physics for more practical pursuits.
In Switzerland, Einstein fails his entrance exams but is permitted to audit classes in preparation for next year’s exams. During this time, he falls in love with Marie Winteler (Shannon Tarbet), only to break her heart as he courts a fellow physics student from Serbia, Mileva Maric (Samantha Colley), who will become his first wife.
A fascinating tidbit about Einstein in these years: he was not, according to the educational standards of the day, the best of students. In one scene, during a trigonometry lesson, the headmaster violently raps his ruler on Einstein’s desk while the young man is lost in thought.
“Herr Einstein, wake up!” “I wasn’t sleeping sir. I was thinking,” Einstein responds.
“Oh really. About what exactly?” “The secrets of the cosmos, I suppose.”
“I suggest you think about trigonometry instead, with your eyes open. And sit up!” Einstein soon upsets the teacher again, and after being told to leave the classroom, he strides up to the blackboard, snatches the chalk and quickly dispatches the equation the class is working on as the teacher barely contains his rage.
The same irreverence for authority fol- lows the young man to Switzerland. While the Swiss tend to be more relaxed than the Germans, Einstein soon has another falling out. He is reprimanded for incessantly asking questions and not respecting “the fundamentals” ‒ for “this is not an exploration, but a lecture,” his teacher tells him. Pulling him aside after class the teacher adds, “You are a clever boy, Herr Einstein, but you never let yourself be told anything.”
Constant questioning and daydreaming may have seemed useless to his teachers but, for Einstein, such methods served him well as many of his breakthroughs came when he visualized how ideas played out in practice.
He once remarked that “knowledge is limited, but imagination encircles the world,” and that he would “rarely think in words at all.”
THE SERIES makes compelling use of his thought experiments by depicting the ideas and processes he tried to visualize.
Despite these eccentricities, Einstein had one thing most people lack – the ability to concentrate for days and even months on end. Lead actor Rush says that is what constitutes his genius. “What separates Einstein from the rest of us is he had phenomenal focus on the gifts he recognized would be his life’s work.” But, as portrayed in one scene, this intensity came at a price.
Upon learning of Rathenau’s assassination, he stoically heads off to his study but before he can close the door, Elsa, his second wife (played by Emily Watson), pleads with him, “Please don’t do what you always do ‒ hide in your work. Your friend just died. You need to grieve.” Other scenes show Einstein retreating when the emotional needs of others weighed on him.
Work for Einstein was so important that he ignored Elsa’s fears about the street violence targeting Jews. He even batted away warnings that he was on the same list of targets as Rathenau.
For a while, the threats seemed to come only from the rabble who looked for easy scapegoats after Germany’s humiliation in World War I and the economic instability that followed. Soon, however, antisemitism took on subtler forms. In the universities, envious professors attacked Einstein’s general theory of relativity for corrupting “German physics” and “Aryan respect for empirical observation.”
point comes when the elder Einstein makes a trip to his local tobacco shop and sees Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” for sale. “It’s only because my customers re- quested it,” says the shop owner. “Everyone has a choice,” Einstein responds.
Soon after, he encounters brown-shirted Nazi supporters who are beating up Jewish shopkeepers in a square. He intervenes, but is recognized and quickly leaves. One member of the group tracks him down and spits in his face. Einstein returns home and says to Elsa, “You’re right. It’s time.” Startled, she responds, “I’ll call Princeton.” The university will provide a refuge and the US will become their adopted home.
Einstein’s reaction to such pervasive antisemitism, as Isaacson writes in his book, “was to feel even more connected – indeed, inextricably connected – to the culture and community of his people.”
Though he fancied himself an “internationalist” and “citizen of the world,” such labels did not make him “indifferent to members of one’s tribe,” as he told a friend in 1919. He participated in fundraising missions for Jewish settlements in Palestine and the establishment of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. These efforts put him at odds with Jewish colleagues who thought the best way to avoid trouble was to assimilate as patriotic Germans. Einstein, however, was unable to hide his hostility.
“The undignified mania of trying to adapt and conform and assimilate, which happens among many of my social standing, has always been very repulsive to me,” he told a reporter in 1921.
Future episodes return to Einstein’s younger days, relationship with Maric, difficult divorce, employment in a Swiss pat- ent office, struggles to break into the scientific establishment, tensions with colleagues over political matters, growing fame and his affair and marriage to Elsa, who was also his first cousin.
One fault is the script’s use of German accents in an English-language production. They end up muddling words here and there, making comprehension difficult. But this minor flaw is offset by superior acting.
Rush plays Einstein with gravitas and an acute sense of the scientist’s eccentricities and blunders. Another strength is the lighting in many scenes, which even gives presumably dusty lecture halls an air of transcendence.
Commenting on what it’s like to play Einstein at a red-carpet event in early April, Rush thought it might be the role of a life- time. “You don’t get parts like this with such dimension or scope,” he said.
It allows for a wider and more in-depth exploration of ideas and themes, many of which are relevant today, says Rush. And because a lot of it is set in the 1930s in a totalitarian Europe, he adds, “there are coincidental connections with maybe how people feel about the world being a little bit off kilter at the moment. The parallels are not direct but there are implications.”