The new Nat Geo series Genius premiered last week. The 10-part series—based on the Walter Isaacson biography “Einstein: His Life and Universe”—examines the life of Albert Einstein and illustrates the man behind the icon.
The series focuses on the formative years of Einstein’s life and the events that shaped him—both as a man and as a physicist. Geoffrey Rush plays the role of Albert Einstein, and the series is produced by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer.
One of the things that I find most compelling about the story is the way that it pulls back the curtain on the icon to reveal the man. For someone famous, like Einstein, it’s easy to sort of boil his entire existence down to the pivotal contributions he made to science and ignore the person behind those contributions as well as the sweat and tears that went into them. The more time that passes after the death of someone famous, the more likely it is that all we really remember is a marginally fictionalized hero-version of the reality.
I spoke with Dr. Clifford Johnson—a professor of physics at the University of Southern California and a science advisor for the show—about Genius. Dr. Johnson has reviewed the scripts for all of the episodes and told me confidently that it is an excellent series that he expects the audience will enjoy. He acknowledged that it’s possible there will be changes between the scripts he read and what actually ends up on screen, but—barring a major rewrite of an episode—he assures me we are in for a treat.
One thing that Dr. Johnson stressed is that Genius illustrates the amount of hard work and tedious effort that goes into being a “genius.” There is no denying that Albert Einstein played a crucial role in our understanding of physics and science, but Dr. Johnson pointed out that there are two contributing factors to consider.
First is the idea expressed in the Isaac Newton quote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Einstein made some crucial discoveries, but we have to remember that part of the reason that he was able to develop and prove his theories is the foundation of science and scientific discovery that preceded him.
The second—and possibly more important—contributing factor is that developing and proving theories is hard and tedious. Albert Einstein didn’t just wake up one day, and think, “Hey. You know what? I think E=MC2!”
The reason I believe that distinction is important is that it levels the playing field some and can help inspire others to pursue greatness. If people fall for the myth of Albert Einstein and believe he was just born with a superior intellect, there is no incentive to strive to be like him. The same goes for “geniuses” in other fields—Michael Jordan and basketball, Prince and music, Ernest Hemingway and writing, etc. Each of these individuals were blessed with some amount of talent, but it’s what they did with the talent that matters. They showed up early, stayed late, worked hard, and were not afraid to experiment and fail. That’s what makes a “genius.”
In my opinion, that is the real value of this Nat Geo series. If all the audience comes away with is a slightly better understanding of the man behind the Albert Einstein myth, that will be good enough. However, the real impact of a series like Genius is its ability to provide incentive and drive for the next generation of geniuses.
Genius airs on Nat Geo on Tuesdays at 9pm Eastern (8pm Central). If you missed the first episode you can watch it online for free—even if you don’t have Nat Geo in your cable TV package. Go check it out, and set your DVR to catch the rest of the series.