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Q&A: Clifford Johnson on humanizing Einstein

20 June 2017

The USC theoretical physicist served as science consultant to help the writers of Genius bring Einstein’s work to life.

Clifford Johnson: USC physicist Clifford Johnson was the science consultant on Genius. Courtesy of Clifford Johnson.
Clifford Johnson: USC physicist Clifford Johnson was the science consultant on Genius. Courtesy of Clifford Johnson.

National Geographic’s Genius, a drama about the life and work of Albert Einstein, concludes on 20 June with a two-hour finale. The last episodes of the series find Einstein living and working at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Despite the bucolic setting, troubles abound for the great physicist. His wife, Elsa, is ill; his relationship with his son Hans is in tatters; and his search for a unified field theory has stalled. The episodes also look back on Einstein’s tumultuous relationship with Hans’s mother, Mileva Marić, whom Einstein began courting when they were pursuing graduate studies in physics at Zurich Polytechnic (see the 23 May discussion with Einstein historians Daniel Kennefick and Alberto Martínez).

The series has not been shy about exploring Einstein’s scientific contributions. Many of Einstein’s famous thought experiments have made it to the screen, and the characters vigorously debate scientific questions such as the existence of molecules, the astronomical implications of relativity, and the interpretation of quantum mechanics.

To get those details right, the Genius production team reached out to Clifford Johnson, a physicist at the University of Southern California who consults for the History Channel, Marvel, and other entertainment clients when he’s not studying string theory and quantum gravity. Physics Today interviewed Johnson about his work on Genius, consulting for films and television, and why he thinks portrayals of scientists in popular culture are so important.

Albert Einstein (Geoffrey Rush) in his office. Courtesy of National Geographic.
Albert Einstein (Geoffrey Rush) in his office. Courtesy of National Geographic.

PT: How did you become involved in science consulting for television and films?

JOHNSON: I’ve been doing a lot of public outreach for many decades, and that has included commenting on films and things like that. I blog from time to time. At some point people started reading my posts or just doing a Google search and finding things that I wrote, and that translated into phone calls. In 2008 the National Academy of Sciences set up the Science and Entertainment Exchange to make a broader effort to connect scientists with people in the industry. Currently I get some of my consults through them and some through my own connections.

PT: How much did you know about Einstein’s life prior to working on Genius? Had you read the Walter Isaacson biography that the show used as a basis?

JOHNSON: I’m actually hugely interested in the scientific history of that period. I’ve been quite immersed in not just Einstein, but many other figures of that time. Einstein is probably the most famous, but there are also all the people involved in the development of quantum mechanics—people like [Niels] Bohr and then later [Werner] Heisenberg and [Erwin] Schrödinger. One of my heroes from that middle period is Paul Dirac.

PT: What kind of input were the Genius producers hoping you could give them?

JOHNSON: They wanted to do the life of a scientist without the usual sort of compartmentalized storytelling that you see oftentimes—the life on one side and the science on the other, with very little intersection between the two. They wanted the story of the life very much informed by the science going on at that point and vice versa, which I think was a great ambition. It’s a fantastic way of getting people engaged with the science. There were many examples, especially in the early episodes, where you see the metaphor between the life and the science fully explored. I’m particularly impressed with how receptive they were to the amount of science that I was giving them, and I’m still amazed by how much survived the editing process and stayed up there onscreen.

PT: In a blog entry you write about advising the producers not only on the theoretical details, but also on how scientists work and what the daily life of a research scientist is like. Why did you think that was so important?

JOHNSON: I actually think that aspect is more important than getting a particular detail of science exactly right. A particular fact can be looked up with a simple Google search. An accurate portrait of what scientists really do and how they operate and how they view the world and why they view it that way—that’s not something that’s easily googled. So if I can help filmmakers get that right, I think that has a huge and important impact on entire generations of viewers. It helps shape people’s perception of the role science can and does play in their own lives.

Another important aspect of it all is to help people realize that scientists are actually real people, and not a special group that they can’t relate to. If you can show that scientists are drawn from all walks of life, from all kinds of persuasions, and have all kinds of talents that they can bring, you get away from the caricatures that you often see. Having a good portrait of a scientist in a thing that millions of people are going to see is extremely useful for the whole enterprise.

PT: Can you give an example of a particular scene in the series that you gave advice on?

JOHNSON: Gosh, there are so many. I had a hand in pretty much any scene where there’s conversation about science. I even acted as a dialect coach—I was making sure that the actors knew how to pronounce scientific phrases or concepts.

I tried to make sure that Einstein was portrayed as a collaborator, not as the lone person in the patent office, which is usually the cliché that you see about Einstein. An example from the fourth episode is when he realizes that simultaneity is dead, when he realizes that time is much more flexible than the rest of the world has it, when he essentially breaks with Newton. He talks about a thought experiment with a train and a pair of lightning strikes. This is a real thought experiment that Einstein had. I was able to explain it in detail to the writers, and then I was able to help them write that exchange where he’s explaining it to Michele [Besso]. That’s just one of many scenes where you really needed to find ways of not just getting the science in there, but doing it in an exciting way and showing it as a real conversation, which is how science is done.

I’m also particularly fond of some of the exchanges between Einstein and Mileva in episode two. In fact, those may be my favorites. They’re a young couple, they’re getting to know each other, they’re both learning the science. And so this is what would happen in the real world, right? Your lover is excited about science too. You’re going be talking about it all the time.

There’s this ongoing debate over the role of Mileva in Einstein’s work. There are all these opinions: At one extreme Mileva did all of Einstein’s science, at the other Mileva had nothing to do with it. It seems likely to me that the truth is somewhere in between. If someone you’re spending a lot of your time with is also learning the same science because you’re in the same class, why would you not bounce ideas off her? I was so happy when the writers decided to embrace that. Angelina Burnett, the writer I worked with on episode two, was just in love with the opportunity to show these two young lovers who also loved physics flirting with each other through the physics.

PT: Did you offer any advice on how to make the mathematics and laboratory equipment look authentic?

JOHNSON: It is well known that there was a point during one of Einstein’s early courtships when he couldn’t play the violin. It was known from a letter that he’d injured his hand while doing an experiment for a class at Zurich Polytechnic. So the writers asked me if I knew what experiment it was. I didn’t know, and so I went on this very interesting little adventure trying to figure it out.

There was no record that I could find. The next thing I had to do was ask, well, what would be the kind of experiment that they would be doing in a teaching lab at Zurich Polytechnic in 1895? In the end I made up an experiment. I picked one that was probably in a teaching lab, but then it had to have a component where it could conceivably and plausibly explode and injure somebody’s hand in a dramatic way. And so you see in episode two that Einstein is trying to push a particular experiment that’s called a Kundt’s tube. It’s an experiment that helps you measure the speed of sound using certain resonances. It was fun to come up with this experiment and then to make up the thing that Einstein might have tried that resulted in the powder inside it catching fire.

Genius was shot mostly in Prague, so I was unable to fly out and spend time on set. But the production team worked with a couple of local scientists. They were the ones who were helpful in taking some of the equations and filling the chalkboards in the various scenes. I don’t know the names of those people, but they deserve some accolades for doing that. Most science portrayals on television have a chalkboard with just E = mc2 or Schrödinger’s equation on it.

PT: It seems like it might be a challenge to portray the history accurately while also crafting an interesting narrative. Did you feel like that was something Genius had to juggle?

JOHNSON: Actually, no. You might think you need to embellish a typical scientist’s life, but not Einstein’s. His story is essentially movie-ready. While there were tweaks and adjustments made here and there to give each episode a strong dramatic arc, overall, the core events and characters in the drama are taken straight from his life.

In fact, it’s shocking that we waited until 2017 to do this good a job on a scientific biography that is just so full of drama. The opening episode starts with a car chase and someone being gunned down in the street. This actually happened. I heard people say, “Oh, they started with a car chase because they don’t trust their audience to be interested.” Well, why would you not lead with that if that really happened? I would say in the case of Einstein, they didn’t have to work hard to get drama in every one of those episodes because it’s right there just waiting to be used.

Johnny Flynn plays the young Albert Einstein in Genius. Courtesy of National Geographic.
Johnny Flynn plays the young Albert Einstein in Genius. Courtesy of National Geographic.

Then there are all the people Einstein had contact with who are also hugely significant. The middle episodes of the series involve encounters with people like Fritz Haber, who’s this amazing character. The guy who taught us how to mass-murder people on the battlefield with mustard gas is also the guy who arguably saved the world by showing how to extract nitrogen from the air to give us artificial fertilizer. These are not made-up facts. These are amazing things that you can have in a science drama with no embellishment, and so they used that stuff well. It’s just riddled with amazing, amazing characters.

So I’ve been waiting for this for decades. I find in most cases I’m sitting and looking at these episodes, and although I know these scripts extremely well, I still sit there with a grin on my face just seeing this actually happening. These people are having, on prime-time television, a detailed discussion about the breakdown of simultaneity in spacetime physics, and a lot of people are sitting there watching this and getting it and seeing what the stakes are. I’ve always thought this was possible, and now I’m just so delighted that it’s happening.

PT: Why do you think we find Einstein so compelling?

JOHNSON: People find him compelling for lots of different reasons. He changed our view of quantum theory through a certain way of addressing the science, a certain way of tackling ideas, that hadn’t been done quite so successfully before. He asked certain kinds of questions, and then he constructed an apparatus for answering those questions that included his famous thought experiments. So from the practicing scientist perspective, that’s very appealing.

On the side of the general public, there’s a lot of Einstein mythology that contributes to the appeal. There’s the lone genius who revolutionized the world by somewhat being apart from everything. That’s largely fictional, and I hope that I helped the show unpack that. But it has an appeal, right? The whole mythology of genius is very much associated with Einstein.

One of the reasons that it works so well is because Einstein is portrayed in most photographs as his older self. I think people have a comfort with that because then he becomes this wizened father figure, a Gandalf-type figure. Perhaps it makes him less threatening.

A lot of the work that I do in getting science out there into the world actually runs in opposition to that. I spend a lot of time trying to tell people that that Einstein is not the Einstein of reality. You can still love Einstein; you can still think he’s the most awesome scientist. But please give up on the withered old man image and recognize that when he was doing all of the amazing stuff, he was a young man in his twenties and thirties. That’s important to get across because it makes him more accessible, and then you take away that otherworldliness. He becomes a real person, and with that comes flaws. With that comes mistakes. With that comes a tumultuous personal life, and all of that stuff that makes him more human.

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