Historical fiction television is hot right now, which is great because it is one of my favorite genres. A show I am particularly excited about is called Genius on National Geographic. It is about, arguably, the most famous genius, Albert Einstein. The show chronicles his life from a rebellious young student to the renowned physicist we imagine him to be.
While historical fiction can be fun regardless of how accurate it is I appreciate when producers make an effort to try to follow actual history because then the show can also be educational and give us a real sense of what it was like during the time and events the show is attempting to present.
To maintain accuracy, National Geographic tapped the genius of Dr. Clifford Johnson, a professor in the Physics and Astronomy Department at the University of Southern California. He advised the show on the accuracy of the science, the history, and the way scientists work and interact with each other.
I recently interviewed Dr. Johnson to get his thoughts on the show and its accuracy, and what Albert Einstein and the idea of “genius” mean to him.
Alejandro Rojas: Is this show significant, and, if so, why?
Dr. Clifford Johnson: I think a show like this is a great opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done before in terms of really unpacking what people mean by genius, which is a lot more nuanced than we normally see portrayed on-screen.
I think over the course of the life that you see unfold on the show, which needs at least 10 hours to do justice, you get to see that genius is not just the usual Einstein myth of this incredibly talented person just revolutionizing the world with no context. You’ll see the context, which is that he’s a real person with flaws and you’ll see also the process by which science itself is done, which is it’s very collaborative.
He has great ideas, but he has to shape them. He has to make mistakes, and he has to use the knowledge of the people around him, his friends, his lovers, et cetera. He has to use their input as well, and that’s not really shown a lot in dramas about what people like to think of as genius.
Genius is usually portrayed as somewhat magical and therefore, inaccessible. So, I think the tone of the show, hopefully, will show that it’s not this inaccessible thing. There’s a lot of hard work, and failures, and relying on the people around you as well as your own internal drive to succeed.
Rojas: How accurate is the show?
Dr. Johnson: I would say probably more accurate than a show of this kind has ever been, but then I don’t really think there have been many shows of this kind before.
I would say that by and large the core pieces of science that Einstein contributed to and thought about, and that we see him learning when he’s a student as well, that was maybe as real as they could possibly make it given the constraints of time. I was happy to help them get as much right as possible, while still telling a rich and interesting story. Obviously, there’s going to be some things that are left out. They couldn’t show everything, so by omission there’s going to be some inaccuracy. Maybe to tell a neater story they needed have to move some events around a bit, compress some things here and there…. I respected that and helped them still keep it true to the spirit of what happened.
We weren’t there during a lot of the conversations. We had to infer some of the things that were said in conversations, so obviously, there’s a little bit of dramatic license here and there in order to tell the story of the things that were not known.
But, in terms of the science and the spirit of the historical development of the ideas, and things like that, that was as good, I think, as it could be done with the constraints of keeping it interesting. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an error here and there, but I think in terms of the really big things they did a really great job.
Rojas: What does the idea of Einstein mean to you?
Dr. Johnson: To me? Well, the kind of work I do as a scientist in the 21st century, so much of it follows from the kinds of things Einstein led the way in over a hundred years ago, so Einstein to me is, as a theoretical physicist following in those footsteps. He is someone who was able to synthesize a lot of ideas that were out there and find ways of seeing that material fresh.
That, in some sense, is his greatest contribution, that he was able to see with fresh eyes. He was able to ask very, very simple questions about things. That’s a guiding light for any scientific endeavor.
You have to learn to ask simple questions and really understand something. That was what Einstein, I think, really, really did very well and I think represents in a lot of the minds of physicists the combination of asking very, very simple questions by looking with fresh eyes and then finding whatever he needed to then try answering those questions.
Sometimes that came from him, sometimes he got help from people, but he was the one who was asking those great questions. So, you see, that was his true genius, being able to ask extremely incisive questions.
Rojas: Then finally, this came to mind when you were answering the first question. I assume that on occasion you are referred to as a genius. How does that make you feel?
Dr. Johnson: My answer may surprise you. I get that term thrown at me a lot, and I think people mean well when they say it, but actually, I mostly try and avoid that term used for me.
I think that genius is a misunderstood term and it sort of hides what really goes on, which is hard work, mostly. In any endeavor when someone is called a genius, what that ends up doing is actually hiding the fact that at the core it’s hard work, it’s persistence, it’s all of that.
You have to put hard work in to make stuff work, and so the term genius ends up, I find, sort of obscuring what’s really going on, so I tend to resist it.