Real Genius

By Corey S. Powell | April 25, 2017 7:40 pm
Old Einstein and young Einstein both get their close-ups in Genius. (Credit: National Geographic/Dusan Martincek)

Old Einstein and young Einstein both get their close-ups in Genius. (Credit: National Geographic/Dusan Martincek)

If you are going to create a television show called Genius, you had better grapple with the nature of genius. If you are going to do that kind of grappling, you might as well focus on the very first face that comes to mind when people say “genius.” And if you are going to do a show about Albert Einstein–which is exactly where the creators of the new series Genius ended up–you’d better have some fresh things to say about the most famous figure in the history of science.

I’m familiar with the challenges. In my book God in the Equation, I attempted a novel interpretation of Einstein’s views on cosmology and theology–with mixed results, I’ll confess. I’ve also written about Einstein’s cultural impact in Discover magazine, and edited articles exploring everything from his family tree to his commercial impact. So I was relieved and intrigued to see that Genius (premiering tonight on National Geographic) does indeed add some new elements to the mix.

Not to give too much away, but…the first ten minutes of the first episode contains distinctly more sex and death than I was expecting. Even after reading Einstein’s much-publicized love letters, it is still startling to see the famous physicist (played by Geoffrey Rush) displaying messy, earthy human desires. Genius also digs deep into Albert’s early years, showing him as a brash, impulsive, confrontational teen (Johnny Flynn handles Young Einstein duties). I initially assumed there was a lot of fictionalizing going on there, but many of the anchoring details come straight from Walter Isaacson’s well-regarded biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe, which provided the spark for the whole series.

At times, Genius succumbs to a touch of prestige-production syndrome, turning self-conscious in spelling out important concepts to the viewer; at others, it seems a little too pleased with its own outrageousness. Both are the failings of too much ambition, at least. And mostly, the series navigates a smart course between celebrating the otherworldly singularity of Einstein’s mental powers and the accessible universality of his humanity. It is a highly worthy undertaking at a time when the world could use more inspiration both to greatness and to goodness.


For more insight into the process that gave us this expansive new take on the Einstein story, I spoke with executive producer Brian Grazer as well as writer Noah Pink. Their distinctly different perspectives (in age, interests, and attitudes) reflect Genius‘s diverse ambitions and, ultimately, its realistically conflicted definition of what exactly makes a genius a genius. Edited versions of my interviews follow, starting with Grazer.


Why Einstein? He’s an obvious choice for a show about genius, but maybe too obvious?

Brian Grazer: Walter Isaacson’s book contains a lot of insights into the nuances to Einstein’s life and how he interfaced with global culture. He also faced the life-or-death struggle of being a Jew during Nazi Germany, having to leave Europe for America…after reading the book, we felt like it had enough propulsion to be almost a thriller. When you are a storyteller you are looking for that vertical, straight-line narrative. We felt like we had that, even though we’re including lots of different things.

Do you consider Einstein a template for the concept of “genius”?

BG: He’s inarguably a genius, and it’s hard to find inarguable geniuses! We’ve been working on what could be season 2 of Genius, and there are a lot of people you might commonly think could be a genius but don’t qualify in the same way as Einstein. We haven’t even figured out who our next genius will be. We did feel like we had to open it up beyond science and medicine to business, athletics, the arts… Science and medicine are not the only metrics that define a genius.

You certainly mess with the stereotype of genius, throwing sex and death into first episode…

BG: Yes, it’s kind of Freudian, isn’t it?

In a fictionalized series like this, how do you balance literal truths with impressionistic ones?

BG: Ron [Howard] and I have made many life stories into movies, whether it’s Apollo 13 or A Beautiful Mind or James Brown. You have to create composite characters sometimes, and you do sometimes have to go for the spirit of something within the world of the truth. Really, not every little thing can conform to what’s actually happened, because in many situations nobody really knows what actually happened–particularly when you examine thought or emotionality. Einstein is so iconic that we put much more weight on humanizing him than on idolizing him. It’s an origin story with pain, sacrifice, triumph, and tragedy.

You also dive into the political Einstein’s story. What message do you want viewers to take away from it?

BG: The politics of immigration has been so pointed recently, and Einstein is a definitive character who was an immigrant; he came to America and was a treasure of the planet, certainly of our country. We want to emphasize as much freedom as possible.


Oh yes, you get this Einstein, too. (Credit: National Geographic/Dusan Martincek)

Oh yes, you get this Einstein, too. (Credit: National Geographic/Dusan Martincek)

There are many sides to Einstein. How did you decide which Einstein you want to show in Genius?

Noah Pink: I wanted to show him as a human being with all of the flaws and juxtapositions. He was a genius and a humanist, but his fathering was questionable; he tried to exert sympathy for all of humanity but he sometimes couldn’t have sympathy for his own children. He was a quintessential scientist but also a hopeless romantic; a moralist in politics but in his love life, a polygamist. He accomplished so much in life, but if I could look at him as a regular character, I could find an angle to connect with and the audience could, too.

What about sexy Einstein? Why go there so quickly?

NP: We all have an idea of who Einstein is. For most of us it’s the poster we saw in 6th grade math class of him sticking his tongue out, saying imagination is more important than knowledge. We’re not trying to tell a salacious version of his story; we’re trying to give a fair representation of who Einstein was as a scientist, a father, a lover, a friend. All of that was important.

How did you try to make the portrait not just fair, but true to life?

NP: I had to interpret events and actions, but it wasn’t just me making up stuff. We have Einstein’s letters, we have his speeches. I tried to pepper in as much of Einstein’s actual voice as I could, especially in the pilot. I researched how he spoke, his mannerisms, his outlook on life. I began creating scenes that incorporate some of his famous sayings or writings, then putting it in the context of the dramatic settings. What’s on screen is the culmination of several things—my growing up Jewish, with Jewish humor, combined with knowing what Einstein’s point of view would have been. If you ever see any of his transcripts from the interviews he gave when he came to America for the first time—the man was so quippy, so fast on his feet it’s incredible. It’s like he had a joke ready for every question he’d be asked, and his jokes were both thoughtful and very funny.

The title of the series implies an answer to the question, “What is genius?” Do you have one?

NP: It’s a worthy question! With Einstein it was curiosity. Here’s a guy, no matter what age he was, who never stopped asking questions. If you never stop asking questions you’ll always get a path to something bigger. He proved that, from the moment he asked his dad what a magnet was to his dying days when he was in bed still scribbling equations, still trying to figure out unified theory. But he didn’t pluck these theories from nowhere. He had magnificent leaps in thought about gravity and time, but he wasn’t the only person thinking about these things. He was reading other people’s papers. He needed his friends to bounce ideas off of. He needed other scientists to help him build his theories. Genius doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

You show that he was also a rebel by nature. Clearly that’s an important part, too?

NP: Yes, Einstein’s rebellious attitude was paramount to his genius. He refused to cow-tow to anybody—parents, school teachers, then professors. For the first 26 years of his life, it worked against him. He didn’t finish high school in Germany, he failed to get into Zurich Polytechnic…in many ways, he was a young, egotistical schmuck. The difference is that Einstein also had the knowledge of most of what was going on in contemporary physics by the age of 18. He had a combination of ego, brashness, and sincere hatred of authority, combined with years and years of studying and an innate ability to understand the physical world in a way that most of us would never dream us.

The questions Einstein asked, he could ask only because he didn’t trust authority. He didn’t believe that anything coming out of his professors’ mouths was true. That led him on a path to question everything, and if you do that you find the holes. James Clerk Maxwell found that light moves at just one speed, but that was contrary to what Newton said: Light can’t move at one speed if space and time are absolute. So which one was right? If you had any sense, you’d probably say Newton’s right because he was the pillar of physics. But because Einstein was who he was, he felt free to say no, Newton is wrong.

One of the more surprising details in Genius is that Einstein was a talented engineer, not just a thinker of far-off theories.

NP: It was a classic story of a dad wanting his son to follow in his footsteps [Albert’s father was an engineer]. Einstein learned those skills and was very adept at it. He took that knowledge with him to the patent office; he often found himself making the patents better! A big issue at the time in Switzerland was synchronicity of time, how to synchronize all the clocks in the towns so that time would be absolute. Dealing with patents around the clock problem, that got Einstein thinking: If I’m standing outside a clock tower and looking at a clock strike twelve, will it strike 12 at the exact same time as a clock on a train that’s flying by the clock tower? The nature of time relates to reference frames, which led to relativity. Sometimes when we do things we don’t want to be doing, we learn things that we never thought we would!

What do you see as the personal lesson of Einstein’s story? Do we all have an obligation to aspire to genius, or is it reserved for the special few?

NP: The key takeaway I’d want people to have is that we should never stop questioning, and never take anything for granted. Just because a leader says something, don’t think it’s true. Here is a man who stood up to everybody, because he just could not help himself. Einstein wanted everybody to live up to their potential–politicians, leaders, scientists, and friends. His genius was a combination of preparation and eternal curiosity. If we can embrace those, we can all live up to our potential.

MORE ABOUT: Einstein, genius
  • Erik Bosma

    Right place, right time… How many geniuses or ‘stars’ are out there right now sweeping a street or digging a ditch? Perhaps we should try to discover the nature of ‘genius’ one day and find out how many of them we have. Perhaps if our educational systems were better prepared. But then what if most everyone was a genius? Then who would wipe the crap from the floors? Maybe that would be a good story… A society where almost 100% of the population were geniuses.

    • Uncle Al

      Defund the congenitally inconsequential. Defund the social pseudosciences. Rebirth the 1958 Defense Education Act – gorge the Severely and Profoundly Gifted.

      Rise up against all that is proper and moral by investing in desired futures, not paying reparations to failed pasts. Support evolution, shoot back.

      • Corey S Powell

        Worth taking a look at how much the federal government actually spends on social science:

        And who will be making the decision regarding which people are “congenitally inconsequential”?

    • OWilson

      Not many.

      We are entering the “dark ages”.

      Music, Science, Art, Literature, Theater are dying on the vine. Lady Ga Ga, Bill Nye, Pollack’s paint drips and The Simpsons, are today’s Tchaikovsky, Einstein, Rembrandt, and Shakespeare.

      NASA relies on murdering lowlife Putin for a ride to the Space Station.

      Bill Nye has more Google hits than Newton and Bohr combined :)

      We will have to look elsewhere in the world, at another time for our next renaissance.

      Hopefully it won’t be another 1,000 years, like last time :)

  • m242424

    Is this some idiot program.
    There are NO business genius’
    There are NO Athletics Genius’
    There are NO ART Genius’

    Business, certainly there can be insights into how fluctuations occur, interactions. But at the end of the day this is all science, the science of how money interacts, the science of how people interact. The end result can be used in business.

    Athletics, I don’t know where to begin you are so wrong.

    Art, there are inspirational developments and inventions. It is all subjective, one mans David is another mans disaster. However that is not the issue, everything in art is obvious. you paint, geez my 2 year old paints, you sculpted, my 2 year old build a scultpure out of wet paper. Nothing in Art will be genius.

    Definition of Genius
    Someone who creates a new scientific field with testable and reproducible results.

    • Corey S Powell

      That is certainly one way to look at it. But of course, there are other, very different points of view on this.

    • Uncle Al

      I’d be a little careful here, re the MacArthur grants. The Age of Enlightenment brought fourth a government that survived the Clintons, Saul Alinsky, Snowflakes, a summation of reprobate Media…absent major bloodshed.

      STEM moves whole civilizations. Noble Prizes outside that are political laughingstocks. And yet, Pablo Picasso is deep re the Flynn effect, Youtube v=9vpqilhW9uI No Martin Luther, no New World colonization by Yankees.

      …One presumes CERN knows stuff.

      • Corey S Powell

        I encourage open discussion here, but not political insults in either direction. Please be respectful.

  • OWilson

    I wonder if this current, dysfunctional, Kardashian celeb worshiping, generation can do justice to an intellect far greater than the Hollywood air heads and politicized National Geographic hacks could ever fathom :)

    Through their eyes they see a flawed human, failed father, even an “egotistical schmuk”, with a sincere hatred of authority.

    “I wanted to show him as a human being with all of the flaws and juxtapositions” I think you more than succeeded, good job!

    We are reminded that “He didn’t build that!” Genius doesn’t exist in a vacuum. He needed other scientists (in the way Michelangelo needed marble and chisels, or Mohammed Ali needed his towel guy) :)

    And of course to keep the obscure physics from getting too boring, there is the obligatory sex.

    Somehow this whole project leaves me with weird feeling that the whole deal is severely lacking something. Another nail in the coffin of exceptionalism

    Could that missing something be a touch of genius? :)

    Along with Einstein, even the great filmmakers have left us.

  • Pentcho Valev

    “James Clerk Maxwell found that light moves at just one speed, but that was contrary to what Newton said: Light can’t move at one speed if space and time are absolute. So which one was right? If you had any sense, you’d probably say Newton’s right because he was the pillar of physics. But because Einstein was who he was, he felt free to say no, Newton is wrong.”

    This is mythology. Actually both Maxwell and Newton had said that the speed of light varies with the speed of the observer. The crucial question was:

    Does it vary with the speed of the light source?

    Newton had said “yes”, Maxwell (more precisely, the ether theory) had said “no”, and in 1887 the Michelson-Morley experiment unequivocally showed that Newton was right:
    “Emission theory, also called emitter theory or ballistic theory of light, was a competing theory for the special theory of relativity, explaining the results of the Michelson–Morley experiment of 1887. […] The name most often associated with emission theory is Isaac Newton. In his corpuscular theory Newton visualized light “corpuscles” being thrown off from hot bodies at a nominal speed of c with respect to the emitting object, and obeying the usual laws of Newtonian mechanics, and we then expect light to be moving towards us with a speed that is offset by the speed of the distant emitter (c ± v).”
    “The Michelson-Morley experiment is fully compatible with an emission theory of light that CONTRADICTS THE LIGHT POSTULATE.”

    Pentcho Valev

    • Uncle Al

      Consider Pentcho Valev in light of Luce Irigaray

      slash slash netwar dot wordpress dot com slash 2007 slash 07 slash 03 slash feminist-epistemology slash

      (space)slash(space) is / with no spaces
      (space)dot(space) is . with no spaces

    • Corey S Powell

      FYI, I kept Noah Pink’s words exactly as he said them. Both the writer & producer freely admit that they were learning the science as they went. They also worked with science advisors to get the details right, but the show bears watching as it develops to see how well it does at communicating accurate physics.

  • Uncle Al

    Special Relativity (SR) is Newton rederived according to James Clark Maxwell (1865, cleansed by Oliver Heaviside(. Newton assumed c = infinite. Maxwell and Einstein had c = finite.

    General Relativity is SR plus the Equivalence Principle (EP), assumed by Newton in the first page of Principia (1687), Galileo Nuove Scienze (1638)…Philoponus Corollaries on Place and Void (~500 AD). Einstein-Cartan-Kibble-Sciama gravitation violates the EP on a bench top in existing equipment. EP falsification is outside contemporary physics as GR is outside Euclid and Newton.

    Einstein and Newton assumed Planck’s constant = 0, disavowing quantum mechanics. Pity. Einstein is mirrored within GR – a vast capacity to envision quantitative failures of Official Truth, thereby offending largely everybody.

    • Erik Bosma

      Is genius as genius does? I doubt it. My parents were given an appointment with the school bigwigs when I was app. 14 telling them I had the IQ of a genius. To my parents this meant nothings because they had just survived WW2 in Holland and the Depression before that. What could you get for an IQ of 150? It sure as hell wasn’t going to get my dad a job to look after his 6 kids. Of course my parents weren’t so lucky as to have much of an IQ themselves what with no nutrition for 15 to 20 years and watching siblings die or disappear. Perhaps if they had had some help they might have realized what a gift this could have been. But I sucked at baseball and football and hockey was way too expensive. So when I came home 2 months into Grade 11 I think my old man was happier that he was going to get some extra dough now to help pay bills. I went too work with people who didn’t understand me so I thought it must have been me just being stupid. Copious amounts of drugs, especially alcohol helped that problem go away. Boy, was that bar full of geniuses. Now I’m 63 and I still want to leave a legacy of something somehow but I doubt that’ll happen. And I’m still telling my kids and grandkids the same BS I was told. Got 3 years of college so far but my wife needs to eat too. So is it even worth it. If I started a club, how many would show up? This world, I discovered, is run by folks who are deathly afraid of dying. That’s why the abundance of materialism. Maybe they can take it with them. Or societies like California where everything is just a big play where everyone has a role however large or small. Who cares about the reality of it when you can just write or edit your own script. Science is just another chapter in the endless useless running away from the Sickle Man story. There is no escape folks… no matter what brilliant legacy you leave. Point is to just let it happen; like when a small dog meets a large dog. Close your eyes and enjoy the inevitable. Crawl into the warm mud and hug your real Mom.

      • OWilson

        Nonsense. You have just given up :)

        We didn’t get to this point in civilization to open the door to the barbarians, who would take away our hard won freedom, intellectual, as well as physical.

        We have to constantly fight to leave the world in better shape than we found it, and I’m older than you :)

        The greatest generations that died for our future freedom, would be saddened, that we have become so apathetic.

        Read some history, take two aspirin, and call me in the morning :)

        We have work to do!

        • Erik Bosma

          Well I haven’t given up. I am 3/4’s of the way through an anthro/sociology course at UFV in the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford BC so I’m still in there. I’m trying to get a good handle on history so I can show some of these ‘dunces’ what happens if they fall for the LIE. So thanks for the encouragement.

          • OWilson

            I have a daughter in Chilliwak, so I am familiar with the West Coast “social and environmental awareness”.

            Just be aware that academia there, and everywhere, is overwhelmingly leftist in politics, and that this clouds their perspective on education.

            You are born free, so don’t give up your right to think for yourself!

            Good luck!

          • Erik Bosma

            Yeah, always forget about those durn barbarians. Actually I am quite thankful for the barbarians.
            PS: Chilliwack is about an hour and a bit east of Vancouver (about 30 mins east of here). Chilliwack is also the name of a great band from the 1960’s / 1970’s who used to be called the Collectors. Very good band and their principles are all still active (and alive I hope). Best song I felt they made was a song called Rain-O (or Rain-Oh). Look it up if you feel up to it.


Out There

Notes from the far edge of space, astronomy, and physics.

About Corey S. Powell

Corey S. Powell is DISCOVER's Editor at Large and former Editor in Chief. Previously he has sat on the board of editors of Scientific American, taught science journalism at NYU, and been fired from NASA. Corey is the author of "20 Ways the World Could End," one of the first doomsday manuals, and "God in the Equation," an examination of the spiritual impulse in modern cosmology. He lives in Brooklyn, under nearly starless skies.


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