Fans of Walter Isaacson’s exhaustive biographies know two things when they pick up his latest. One, it won’t be a quick read. And two, every moment will be worth it, as heroes of science and technology become irresistible in their humanity as much as their exceptional minds.
The latter inspired filmmakers Gigi Pritzker, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer to choose Isaacson’s 2008 book Einstein: His Life and Universe as the launching point for their National Geographic series Genius — a series they hope will spark the imagination and wonder of viewers of all ages. And take the scary out of science, too.
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The series’ fourth episode, which debuted last night, spotlights Einstein’s “miracle year” of 1905 during which he produced the celebrated “Annus mirabilis papers” — four works widely regarded as the foundation of modern physics. Works some say might not have happened without the help of Einstein’s equally brilliant first wife, the Serbian-born physicist Mileva Marić.
We caught up with Isaacson — the former CNN Chairman turned president and CEO of the Aspen Institute — to talk genius, Genius and why, as Einstein famous proclaimed, imagination really is often more important than knowledge.
CGM: Innovation is obviously central to everything you do, but tell me about the catalyst for taking Einstein on as a biographical subject.
Walter Isaacson: I wanted to show what the true nature of genius is like, and Einstein was somebody who not only was smart, but he was also creative and imaginative. What set him apart from other scientists was not his scholarly expertise — because he changed physics radically in 1905 when he was just a patent clerk, he was not a professor or anything. But he had a willingness to be rebellious, to think differently, to question authority, and that gave him the imagination to see things that other people had never thought of. I realized that that was connected to his daily personality, his love life and personal life, so I wanted to show how his personality connected with his physics.
How much were you involved in the process of turning the book into Season 1 of the series? Were there conversations with Ron and Brian about what they wanted to bring to the viewing audience?
This is really something that Ron and Brian drove. I can take no credit for it other than having written the book that they used— but I did talk to them starting out in California when we were at a retreat together about a year ago, about how you would make Einstein more compelling in TV. Brian talked about having done A Beautiful Mind, but we also talked about the question of connecting art to science being the key to this. And I was surprised at how deep Ron Howard’s appreciation and understanding of Einstein was. He really took it seriously. He didn’t blow off trying to appreciate the science and when he decided to direct that initial episode, I just knew he was serious person about all of this.
Like most folks, prior to the book and now the Genius series, I knew e=mc2, the tongue and the hair, and that was about it. So to delve into your book and to watch the series and discover the man as a student, as a member of his own family, as a husband, as a social observer, pacifist, and champion of education was both fascinating and also a great entry into the idea that I could understand the science. Part of the appeal of telling his story, as well?
Precisely. That is such a wonderful statement you just made. If I can make him seem human rather than some icon on a poster, then people might be less intimidated and would feel, “Oh, this was a flesh and blood person who came up with these ideas. I’m more comfortable now trying to figure them out.” It’s so important that we realize that a genius like Einstein was actually a flesh-and-blood human being. It makes his science more approachable. It makes him less intimidating. Sometimes we turn these people into icons when we should remember that they had fights with their kids and problems with their marriages and faced anti-Semitism and led a real flesh-and-blood life. And that should remind us that we can feel comfortable trying to understand his genius and his science.
I’ve read some reviews of the series that have taken it to task for being too much about those very things — the problems in his marriage, his personal quirks — and not enough about the scientific works. But because the two do go so hand-in-hand, isn’t the whole picture imperative to understanding what kept driving him to get these theories out into the world under such an incredible amount of opposition and oppression? And modern innovators face so much the same thing.
The greatest, the most beautiful theory in the history of science is the general theory of relativity, which was done in a period when his life, his marriage was falling apart, he was struggling over his children, he was facing anti-Semitism, and living alone in Berlin. And that’s important to understand his intensity and his passion as he juggled these crises in his personal life with this challenge in his scientific life. It’s totally wonderful that National Geographic put the science in the context of personal turmoil, because that’s the way it actually was.
Genius does such a beautiful job of illustrating Einstein’s thought experiments and turning them into a visual, dimensional thing. As someone who needed to convey them accessibly on the page, what was that like for you to see Ron and his group bring them to life?
It was spectacular was that Ron Howard and the team realized that Einstein thought visually, because his genius was to be able to visualize how space might curve, or how a light beam would look if you tried to catch up with it. And in the show, they brilliantly convey these visual thought experiments that he did, which can make science much more fascinating for a young kid, or for that matter, us grownups, than if it were done with mathematical equations. They recreated the visual thoughts with beautiful animations.
They also did a lovely job of illustrating the impact of nature and music and art on his ability to be a scientific renegade, which is a fine thing to see when the current political climate is so challenging for arts education and America’s natural resources.
This is a key element of the book, which is genius comes from connecting arts to the sciences. It comes from connecting humanities to technology. And that’s true of Steve Jobs, it’s true of Albert Einstein, and it’s true of the person whose biography I’m publishing in October, which is Leonardo da Vinci. That connection of art to science is a true key to genius. When Einstein had trouble with his science, he’d pull out his violin and play Mozart, because he said Mozart’s music had an intimate connection with nature. It all connects.
One of the greatest revelations of the book and series for me was discovering the women in Einstein’s life and their impact on his life and work and vice versa. Tell me about your own discovery process concerning Mileva and Elsa.
I think it’s really important to understand Mileva Marić — who was the only woman studying physics back in Zurich when Einstein was there — and the difficulties facing a woman who wanted to be a great scientist. It was an unusual pairing. She was Serbian, he was Jewish, but they shared an appreciation for physics and she served a sounding board on special relativity. So I loved that relationship and I think that episode four, which is airing this week, really helps you understand the miracle year of 1905, and the role that Mileva played. But at different times in his life, Einstein felt the need for different things. He needed a true domestic companion when he married Elsa, but he needed an intellectual stimulus when he married Mileva.
You’ve spoken in other interviews about Einstein’s rock-star reception, especially in America, but this is a guy that challenges things that many Americans consider the pinnacle of patriotism — religion, monogamy, nationalism, which he calls an infantile disease. What made us eager to claim his as our own?
When Einstein came to America, he was already a great celebrity. And at a time when the U.S. was fighting Nazi Germany, he was a symbol of two things. One, refugee from Hitler. And two, the group of scientists who helped us win the war. He had a gentle feel for the importance of democracy and freedom and so he became quite beloved, especially in his older years when he’d tutor school kids in math in return for them teaching him the rules of baseball. He was just a lovely human being.
Ron and Brian’s hopes for Genius echo what you said when your reasons for choosing Einstein as a book subject — expanding people’s minds to the idea of genius, that it isn’t just the kid at the front of the classroom frantically waving his hand, or the most book smart guy or girl in the room. That indulging our creative self — no matter what that entails — is a little bit of genius, too.
I’ve written books that celebrate creative thinkers and scientists because I want them to be our heroes, as opposed to thinking we could never be like them. And that why it’s important to personalize Einstein, to show that he may have been smart, but we can try to be more like him. It’s why I’m writing about Leonardo Da Vinci next. Here’s a guy who never finished school, but he taught himself to be creative and curious and that’s very true of Einstein, as this series shows. It wasn’t simply that he was smart, because he wasn’t the best student at the Zurich Polytechnic. It’s that he was creative and imaginative. And we can all try to be more creative and imaginative, and especially if we don’t just surrender and say “Oh, I’ll never understand science or math.”
This is why Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s series is so good. It inspires people to love the beauty of science and not feel intimidated by it. If you look at what Einstein did — and this is part of the TV series — he runs away from the school system in Germany, because it’s sort of rigid and memorization, and instead he finds a school in Switzerland where they taught people to think visually. We have to do that for our school kids — not only encourage them to learn the formulas, but also encourage them to think creatively and visually. I must say that Ron and Brian and definitely Geoffrey Rush and Johnny Flynn and Emily Watson — every single one of them — has done a spectacular job of making this lively and beautiful.
Genius airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on National Geographic.