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Einstein historians give <em>Genius</em> a chance

23 May 2017

Daniel Kennefick and Alberto Martínez say that the new TV series gets some details wrong, but it is overall an engaging look at Einstein’s life.

Einstein and Marić
Albert Einstein (Johnny Flynn) and Mileva Marić (Samantha Colley) share a tender moment reading a physics journal. Credit: National Geographic

The National Geographic Channel’s new series Genius quickly makes clear that it will not be a staid depiction of Albert Einstein’s life. Within the first 10 minutes of episode 1, Einstein’s friend is brutally assassinated, and Einstein has sex with his mistress in his home office. That beginning sets the scene for the series’ often surprising perspectives on Einstein’s intellectual and personal journeys.

Physics Today books editor and science historian Melinda Baldwin recently asked two Einstein specialists―Daniel Kennefick, coauthor of An Einstein Encyclopedia, and Alberto Martínez, author of Kinematics: The Lost Origins of Einstein’s Relativity―for their takes on the series. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.

PT: I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say about this interesting series.

MARTÍNEZ: I really like it. I thought that the beginning was overdone—the bloody murder of Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau,[1] followed by Einstein having sex with his secretary standing up in his office, was a little too much.

KENNEFICK: Yes. But like you guys, I have enjoyed it overall.

MARTÍNEZ: I think the history on the whole is pretty good. In detail, it has a number of flaws. But naturally they’re trying to fit reality into a teleplay, so they make some compromises at times.

KENNEFICK: Given that they’ve elected to make it a TV series, it gives them more time and frees them a little bit from the necessity to compress. I think they are making some reasonable effort to stay close to the historical facts, even if the historical facts may have been chosen for melodramatic purposes.

It was noteworthy that they dwelled quite a bit on Rathenau and his killers. We got to see [his assassins] being apprehended, and I had to go and read up about that. It seems to have happened broadly as they depicted, but one wonders whether the details of how one of the murderers shot himself before being apprehended were vital to Einstein’s life story. But it made for a dramatic opening.

PT: I’d like to talk a little bit about Einstein as a political figure. We get an interesting contrast between 1922 Einstein, who seems very politically active, and an older Einstein in 1933 who seems a little more detached from politics. Do you think that’s true to the trajectory of Einstein’s life?

MARTÍNEZ: No. There’s a scene in which Einstein’s second wife, Elsa, says something along the lines that the Nazi Party has won 238 seats in the Reichstag. That was in 1932, and that did happen.[2] This is the kind of moment in history when in hindsight, one would wish one had been able to foresee what was later to happen.

Einstein’s an internationalist. One funny thing that the teleplay kind of gets in reverse is that early on, in 1922, Elsa is asking Einstein to leave. She thinks they should leave Germany because it’s becoming too dangerous. Allegedly Einstein is on some sort of a hit list. Einstein says, “We should not leave,” and at [Rathenau’s] funeral, in a very touching moment, Einstein rightly says, “If we leave, they win.”

The funny thing is, historically they did leave in 1922. The teleplay portrays them as staying in Germany, but [in reality] Einstein hit the road. They went to Japan. They went to faraway countries. They went on cruises. They did leave Germany for quite a while because of the political disturbances.

KENNEFICK: Obviously it’s very true that at the time of the Nazi Party’s rise, many people were saying, “Well, they’re surely never gonna come to a majority, so maybe there’s no great need to worry.” That was certainly a sentiment that was very much in the air in Germany and outside Germany, [but] I think that it’s a little misleading to have those sentiments coming from Einstein’s mouth. I did find that one of the less convincing points, because as Al rightly points out, they did in fact leave after the Rathenau murder. He did in fact entertain offers to permanently leave, to go to other universities outside of Germany. The Dutch at Leiden were particularly keen to get him at that time.

I should also add that, Melinda, you said that it does somehow end up managing to give the impression that as a younger man, he was more concerned by politics and that he had grown a little more complacent as he got older. I think most of the experts on his political life―and perhaps you’ll agree with me here, Al―would sort of say the reverse.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. When he was living in Berlin in the 1910s, Einstein cosigned a pacifist manifesto that was signed by very few people and not circulated much at all. Certainly once he became super famous after 1919, many more people reached out to him, especially pacifists and people with political missions, and he started lending them his name and joining their organizations. And he increasingly saw the plight of the Jews and felt this connection with them that in earlier years of his life he did not feel.

PT: In episode 1 we see a physicist named Philipp Lenard, a member of the Nazi Party, giving a fiery speech against Einstein. I was wondering if you could tell our readers a little bit about who Lenard was and why he seemed to have such a particular antipathy toward Einstein.

MARTÍNEZ: What could we say about Lenard? He had worked early on trying to isolate cathode rays outside of a cathode-ray tube. Lenard figured out a way to do so by creating a thin aluminum window, and the cathode ray strikes it and manages to make it out.[3]

So he was a very successful experimental physicist. He was widely admired by the German physics community and many others. It’s important to realize that apart from the fact that [Lenard] did support the Nazis, he was an experimentalist. This brought with it a certain resistance against the kinds of things that were being done in theoretical physics by people such as Einstein.

KENNEFICK: There were many scientists who were uncomfortable with the style of physics that Einstein did, the theoretical approach. Certainly turning back to the eclipse expedition and the vindication of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, if you look at the correspondence of astronomers at the time, they were very worried about the rise of general relativity. [They] felt that it was not a very congenial theory.

So Lenard’s view, in that respect, is not uncommon. But perhaps because in his case it played into nationalist and anti-Semitic feelings, it gave rise to this personal animosity. Which in a way is odd because originally, some of their scientific interests were so compatible. They had both worked on the photoelectric effect. They really, in some sense, benefited each other’s careers. My impression is the same as Al’s, that it can really be laid down to Lenard’s dislike of Einstein’s style of physics, of his role in physics, and to anti-Semitism.

Philipp Lenard
Michael McElhatton plays Philipp Lenard in the series. Credit: National Geographic

PT: How do you feel that the series is handling its history of physics so far? Do you feel it’s true to Einstein’s intellectual trajectory? Because they seem to be showing him thinking about relativity or relativity-like concepts fairly early in his life.

MARTÍNEZ: That’s precisely what I thought. Several of the things they bring up seem to be brought up too early. Around 1895, Einstein did think of the thought experiment of chasing a light beam, but then the series producers actually portray him in a high school classroom questioning Newton’s concepts of space and time. I think that’s premature.

Similarly, they use Einstein’s girlfriend Mileva Marić to embody interests that Einstein was developing almost as if she got them before him and he learned them from her. She knows electromagnetic theory and Maxwell’s equations. She knows kinetic theory of gases. She is studying the equipartition theorem with Lenard at [the University of] Heidelberg. I do think the scientific topics discussed by the teleplay writers are fair and accurate. Maybe the chronology seems a little bit off in the way they present it. What do you think, Dan?

KENNEFICK: I think that you’re absolutely right. There’s a certain tension with this series because at the one level, it is a historical drama, so you would like to ideally portray the characters in a historically accurate light. On the other hand, it does seem that they wanted to have a pedagogic function, too, to explain Einstein’s ideas to a modern audience.

I understand [the series] is informed by Walter Isaacson’s biography, one of the more recent biographies that have been able to take advantage of the large body of work by Einstein scholars over the last couple of decades. That shows in certain ways that are nice to see. For instance, the idea that we get in the series is that Einstein was really rather a good student, that teachers responded to him as being a brilliant young man—whereas of course a bit of folk wisdom had emerged in modern times that somehow or another he was a poor student.

PT: In the first two episodes, there was a lot of focus on the women in Einstein’s life—his first love, Marie Winteler; Marić, whom he married in 1903; his second wife, Elsa; his mistress, Betty Neumann.[4] I wasn’t expecting that from an Einstein biography. As Einstein scholars, do you feel that’s true to Einstein’s life experience, or does it feel like they’re amping up the drama?

MARTÍNEZ: I think it’s fair. There was drama in Einstein’s romantic life, so in that sense, it’s fair. But there are several interesting inaccuracies. Einstein fell deeply in love, it’s true, with Winteler, who was the daughter of a host he had in the town of Aarau in Switzerland when he was finishing high school. He fell in love with her, and she fell head over heels in love with him. This led some people to describe their relationship as an affair, and then that led other people to convert that word affair into a sexual relationship. So you actually find them having sex in an open field in the daytime in the TV series. But there’s no evidence of that happening.

Similarly with Marić, the way in which they heighten the drama is they convert her to this highly passionate, argumentative, almost viciously angry person. Actually she was a shy, withdrawn, pensive, good-natured person, but they convert her into this power of nature. The way they make that even more forceful is by giving her credit for all kinds of things. They portray her as having the highest score in mathematics in the entrance exam for college, which is a fiction.

Similarly, they portray her complaining to Einstein again and again that he’s distracting her, draining her energy, that he is preventing her from studying. He’s even obstructing her from going to classes in order to have sex. But we have detailed letters exhibiting the nature of their relationship, which was happy, pleasant, collaborative. We have evidence of him actually helping her and encouraging her. Yet in the TV series, he seems to really be the factor that ruins her chance at academic success, which is too bad.

KENNEFICK: That’s a good point you make, Al. It seems as if they want to get some later marital tension in, and I agree that it’s as if they’re conflating two different episodes in their lives.

Alberto Martínez (top) and Daniel Kennefick.

MARTÍNEZ: One other thing: There’s an ongoing story about Marić as a great mathematician. The story derives from a biography of Einstein written in 1962 by a guy called Peter Michelmore. He interviewed one of Einstein’s sons, Hans Albert, but we don’t have the notes from the interview.

At one point, [Michelmore] mentioned that Marić helped Einstein in some of the mathematics. It said something along the lines that she helped him solve some mathematical problems. This was when he was trying to create the theory of relativity. So from that one sentence in this one pseudo-biography―just from that phrase―there evolved this whole tradition of saying Marić was better at mathematics than Einstein. In truth, Einstein’s math grades in college were equal to or higher than Marić’s. She would be very surprised to see what they’ve done with her.

PT: What did you think of the direction they took Marić’s storyline in the third and fourth episodes?

MARTÍNEZ: There are several fictions. The show portrays Einstein’s daughter dying as a baby, but we don’t really know what happened to her.[5] It’s also not true that Einstein had his crucial insight into relativity while playing with his baby son and a toy train, or that Einstein’s questioning of simultaneity was inspired by a patent application for a device to synchronize clock towers. Finally, there is no evidence that from 1903 to 1905 Marić was Einstein’s secret collaborator. The series shows her doing library research for him, writing his mathematical proofs, cowriting his important papers, and complaining that Einstein does not give her credit in his papers.

KENNEFICK: I have to agree with Al. There is no evidence that she was an uncredited collaborator on Einstein’s early works. Many experts would say that her frustrations with the death of her ambition as a physicist and his eventual enormous success contributed to the breakup of their marriage. But I don’t think there is any evidence that her complaint was that she made significant contributions that went uncredited.

It’s likely that the very internal style of Einstein’s thought process prevented any serious collaboration, even if Marić had wished for it. Of course the internal nature of Einstein’s dialogue concerning physics is certainly undramatic, so using Marić in this way does help in dramatizing the process of the discovery of Einstein’s fundamental ideas.

PT: We can certainly expect to see more about that relationship as the series moves forward.

MARTÍNEZ: Yes. I want to say something about the actors. I thought that the young actors, Johnny Flynn and Samantha Colley, do a really good job. It’s particularly interesting and surprising that Flynn is wearing all kinds of makeup. I saw him in an interview and he’s blond with blue eyes and he says that nobody could look less like Einstein than him. Even then, his portrayal is charming. And Colley as Marić, I think she’s just phenomenal. I mean, from her posture to her energy, just really phenomenal. I think Geoffrey Rush is pretty good. It’s a tougher job, I think, portraying the older Einstein, since we do have such a strong image of him.

KENNEFICK: Yes, I have to second those remarks. The acting is good, and I do find also that the young Einstein and Marić, those actors did give very charismatic and attractive performances.

PT: Yeah, I agree. They also seem to have done a lot to get the historical objects and props right. It’s a very beautiful series to look at in a lot of ways.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, and it doesn’t look like a black-and-white photograph. You see these people running and on bicycles and trains speeding by. You really get a sense that they live in what they perceive to be a high-speed environment and that it’s exciting rather than stilted, monotone, or monochromatic.

PT: So do you think you’ll continue with the series?

MARTÍNEZ: Oh, of course. Certainly.

KENNEFICK: Yes, I certainly am. My wife and I are both enjoying it.

PT: I think, to my surprise, I’m in for the long haul too.

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