The key to the fifth chapter of Genius is the number four. Carl Jung tells Albert that four is magical and indeed, it sparks a key breakthrough in advancing Albert’s theory of relativity. And in a broader way the episode itself revolves around four key conversations in Albert’s life: Forgiveness, Marriage, Feminism, and Relativity.
While the frame for the last two chapters of the series concerned science, this episode is framed by something more personal: forgiveness. It is a conversation between Edward Einstein, Mileva and Albert’s younger son, and Carl Jung, a friend of Albert’s. It’s set in the future in a clinic where Edward, in his early twenties, is receiving some kind of water shock therapy.
Edward says he experienced delusions in which he was on fire to explain what caused him to jump out of a window. After Edward studies Freud, he comes to the conclusion that his father is to blame. He claims that when he was a boy, Albert accidentally started a fire because he was too distracted by his higher thoughts to notice his pipe had lit the bed on fire. It is a small example of a larger problem for Edward who feels his father has abandoned him, too brilliant for time with his son.
Over the course of the episode and the course of this conversation we see what we see so often in this show: Edward’s and our assumptions are wrong. The stereotype of the absent minded genius does not extend to Albert’s fathering. Albert is a proud and doting father, though often absent. But the reason for his absence is not as simple as we might assume, it’s not the solitude that he seeks for his thoughts, nor, as Mileva accuses, is it infidelity. It’s his marriage that he seeks to escape.
It is painful to watch Mileva and Albert’s relationship dissolve. Mileva feels trapped and intensely insecure. She is supportive but even with the best intentions she is suffocating. Can we blame Mileva… maybe. Can we blame Albert… maybe. But there are larger forces at work.
Albert bounces around Europe from Zurich, to Prague, and even back to Berlin, trying to find the place in which they can be happy. But that place is not anywhere on a map, it is a home that is now lost in their hearts. In what feels like a final effort at salvation, Albert and Mileva join Mileva’s heroine, Marie Curie for a holiday in the Alps.
Marie and Pierre Curie were held up in the previous episode as a quintessentially modern and feminist union. A married couple who pursued their science as equals and demanded equal credit. Their achievements were rewarded with a Nobel Prize – in both of their names. But reality is not as clean or optimistic as it appears. Marie is now on her own after Pierre’s death. She has started a new relationship with a married man and is a social and science outcast in Paris.
When Mileva and Marie finally meet, the conversation between them captures the feminist dilemma of their time and ours. For Mileva, Marie’s is the life she could have had, the life that she dreamed of. Yet Marie envies Mileva as a mother and regrets that her time in the lab was at the expense of time with her own children, who she suspects now hate her. It appears that a woman cannot successfully have children and a career.
But in the very next scene Marie spells out the deeper problem in a conversation with Albert. While Albert and Marie as scientists are able to transcend the rules of science, they are powerless to change the rules of society. Society challenges a woman’s ambition at every turn. In this episode a doctor blames Mileva for hysterical behavior because she is concerned that her child’s cough could be fatal and then follows that up with the suggestion that the real problem is she is not sexually fulfilling her husband. This is more psychological assault then medicine.
Likewise for Marie, now that Pierre is gone, she is not capable of fighting for her own rights. Mileva is bound by the rigid role of motherhood just as Marie is bound by the rules of widowhood. Their different paths meet the same end, and society keeps them in check. I would say that both women were victims of their time except that their struggles are still around 100 years later. Try this thought experiment: even if Albert and Mileva were truly co-parents today and had all the support that a family of two working parents needs, they would still live in a world of glass ceilings and pay inequality.
When those external societal forces meet their idyllic academic romance, a disastrous collision occurs. They dreamt of collaborating as partners, forming a family where they can be scientists and parents. But Mileva’s role in this ideal family has no place in the more rigid culture of their time. As their reality diverges from their utopia, a slow and nasty demise sets in. Mileva is now caged and that confinement, like most confinements, leads to disease. Her self-esteem is disintegrating and her mind is wild with speculation and jealousy. Frustration leads to anger and everything ends in unhappiness.
This demise is eventually embodied by Edward. To spite Albert, Mileva shifts the blame of the fire accident to Albert when in fact it was her fault. Through the lens of this story Edward begins to see his father as a monster who abandoned him. But Jung knows Albert and the pride he had in Edward as he grew. He challenges Edward with the example of his own idol: Freud. A mentor and a father figure to Jung, he eventually challenged Freud’s thinking and rejected him, something he regrets to this day. Jung concludes that the key to his own healing and Edward’s is a simple yet powerful human act: forgiveness.
But we’ve nearly forgotten the science in this episode. That is perhaps because as Albert himself says, the mysteries of the universe are easier to understand than the mysteries of the human mind. And as difficult as his struggles with taking special relativity to the next level are, they pale in comparison to his personal life.
Albert’s theory of special relativity, one of his breakthrough papers from 1905, only works in situations of constant speed, situations that rarely, if ever, occur. Since then, he’s struggled to further define it for the actual world where things are constantly changing. A trip in an elevator does the trick and another elegant live action animation helps us grasp the key breakthrough: that gravity and acceleration are the same force.
Later in the episode, he shares an odd byproduct of his theories on light and gravity with his old school friend Michele Besso: according to his math, gravity can bend light. Albert demonstrates analogously by watching how a log in a river, representing a light ray, gets diverted by an approaching boat. Michele balks at first, pleading that Albert has to stop rearranging the physical laws of the universe at some point. But this is just more evidence of how profoundly Albert is shifting the foundation of physics–once the tremors begin, there’s no telling what the world will look like afterward.