It’s fitting that National Geographic’s new 10-part series about the life of Albert Einstein begins with a bang.
Well, two actually. One tragic, the other pleasurable.
And just like the mysterious duality of light, the sometimes wave, sometimes particle that Einstein pursued his entire life, the duality of tragedy and euphoria seems to have pervaded every element of his life from love to physics to politics.
The first bang is the assassination of the German foreign minister, Walter Rathenau, a Jew and close friend of Einstein’s. Two Nazis shoot him and blow up his car. As the car burns we zoom in on a newspaper, the Jüdisches Samstagsblatt (Jewish Saturday Paper) and the headline “Eine Neue Wahlluge” (A New Choice) an ominous headline that can be read as simultaneously promising and dark.
We then cut to the same paper on Einstein’s desk as he embarks on an enjoyable bang with his secretary Betty pressed up against a blackboard of equations. In the midst of this pleasure he proposes a truly radical, unorthodox idea: that she should move in with him and his wife.
In the aftermath, he dusts an equation off the back of her dress–a feeble attempt at separating his theoretical mind and his libido–while he waits for her reply. She says, “For a man that is an expert on the universe, you don’t know the first thing about people.”
And so we are propelled into the life and the mind of the 20th century’s preeminent genius. A man whose theoretical world is constantly at odds with the reality of the one he actually lives in.
Mimicking Einstein’s own groundbreaking and fluid sense of time, the show successfully moves between his life as an established physics pioneer in his 40’s and his time as a student struggling in the 1890’s with an education system that emphasized rote memorization over abstract problem solving. It reveals how his disdain for a liberal arts education gave way to an embrace of the full humanities and how that added further, likely necessary, dimension to his life, love, and work.
The series open accomplishes exactly what a first episode should. It introduces us to the full spectrum of conflicts, passions and forces that set Einstein’s life in motion. And it made me want to know a lot more about Einstein – not the carefree, crazy haired party-genius from a poster that used to hang in my college dorm room, but the complex and flawed man trying to escape the dark politics of his time.
The show really shines when confronting the greatest challenge of all–conveying Einstein’s insights into theoretical physics to a general audience. While we certainly don’t understand completely where we’re headed with light, time, and relativity, we get a good sense of the key components with clear analogies, the same ones that bugged him as a boy and young man. (I was hoping to see one of my favorites: What happens if you’re in a car traveling at the speed of light and you turn on the headlights? – maybe still to come…)
And just as the true genius of Einstein’s mind was that he thought in a visual, multidimensional geometry, we get some excellent animations that visually convey these analogies in the form of the sun, light rays, and accelerating soccer balls in space. The animation combined with live action helps us enter his mind without leaving the world in which he was grounded.
The dialogue occasionally feels too contemporary. There is certainly resonance between today and the period of Einstein’s life covered in the first episode. The episode clearly points to this by beginning with a terrorist attack and ending with an immigration interview. But while fascism, anti-semitism, and the rise of an unlikely authoritarian are on the minds and in the conversations of both Americans in 2017 and Germans and Jews of the 1920’s, it’s important to resist an equivalency. Nazi analogies are so rampant today that they are pretty much cliché. But they diminish the depth and unthinkable scope of the Holocaust tragedy while simultaneously blinding us to the very different forces at work today.
So far, National Geographic’s first foray into scripted content appears full of energy, life, and depth, using a refreshing formula to reveal new dimensions to the life and mind of Albert Einstein.