image credit: National Geographic

“Genius” Review, Episode 3

Who knew that Albert Einstein was the Jerry Maguire of his day?  After beginning his fall in last week’s episode I kept wondering, when is he going to hit rock bottom?  Not only is Albert unable to get the academic job he was hoping for, he can’t find any job that he doesn’t feel is beneath him.  He has a child on the way, his income has run out from his mother’s family and he’s close to being evicted from his apartment.  He loses his tutoring job when his client’s grades plummet.  His mother hates his new girlfriend and that’s before she knows that she is carrying Albert’s baby.

Sounds more like the plot to an episode of Jersey Shore than the early life of an eventual Nobel Prize winner.  Especially the part where he meets up with Maurice Solovine, a philosophy student who desperately needs tutoring in science.  Despite the help, Maurice does not ‘show Albert the money’, but they wind up forming something that looks more like a modern day fraternity with a third mathematician Conrad Habicht.  They even give their group a Greek name–The Olympia Academy–and, according to the episode, host some kick ass parties. The reality of the Olympia Academy was probably more like a serious book club then the Revenge of the Nerds frat scenes that materialize in the show.

While I’m sure they shared some good times, the three read and discussed works by John Stuart Mill, Hume, Spinoza and Cervantes.  What’s interesting is that we once again see Albert cultivating a liberal arts education outside of academia.  For the moment, this group is a shelter from the storm that is raging around him, but Albert would later say that The Olympia Academy had a significant effect on his work.

As angry as I was at Albert in the previous episode, he completely redeems himself in my eyes at the end of this one.  Mileva and Albert have been living apart though writing regularly.  The party at the ‘Academy’ abruptly ends when Albert learns that Mileva is about to give birth.  His friends present him with an alternative: stay in Switzerland and just send support via money to avoid letting a child weigh you down like an anchor.  A genius must be free to explore his intellectual heights untethered.  A false dichotomy if I’ve ever heard one.

But before we know what he decides, his sister arrives to tell him his father is dying.  He rushes to his father’s death bed in Milan.  While we may have questioned his father’s own intentions early on, we now see where Albert gets his wisdom from.  Before passing, his father encourages him to trust his heart with Mileva despite his mother’s disapproval and seems to encourage Albert to accept his own ‘peculiarities’, accept himself.  What greater gift can a parent give to a child then the encouragement to become who they are.

We soon see that Albert is not only intelligent but guided by a moral compass of his own.  Albert returns to Mileva and his newborn girl, Lieserl.  But being the Jerry Macguire of his time, he arrives to find a second funeral has taken place, Lieserl has died of a childhood illness.

As I mentioned in the last review, the existence of Lieserl, Albert and Mileva’s first child, was only discovered in 1987.  And the letters that told of her existence did not mention anything about her death, just that she had scarlet fever.  It’s been assumed that she died of scarlet fever since there was no word of her after that though it remains a mystery.

There are some historians who point to cryptic phrases in the letters that indicate Lieserl may have been given up for adoption.  Some even say that Mileva’s close friend Helene Savić may have adopted her, pointing to a child of Helene’s that would have been the same age as Lieserl.  While they clearly stand behind the story that Liserl died, the episode gives a nod to the adoption possibility by including a scene with Mileva and Helene, a kind of mirror of Albert’s scene, where Mileva is struggling to accept motherhood and the need to give up her own work.  Helene says, “If it is what you really need, I will help you.”

Regardless, after Albert arrives, he has an unexpected surprise: while he could have comforted Mileva and left to start a new life now that his complications are over he remains true to his heart and asks Mileva to marry him.  Not only that, he swallows his pride and takes a job in a patent office to support them.  But before we celebrate happily ever after, the dastardly Philipp Lenard sticks his neck into the picture.

The entire episode is framed by Lenard, a kind of villain who appears to be lurking in the wings of every episode… but for what reason we still don’t know exactly why (I won’t spoil it but it’s fitting of a Bond villain).  At the opening, Wilhelm Rontgen wins the very first Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901 for producing and detecting a stream of X-Rays.  Lenard is particularly incensed and feels he’s been cheated because Rontgen accomplished this using one of Lenard’s vacuum cathode ray tubes that he lent him.  (I find it a little funny and meta that all this fuss is over a cathode ray tube–a.k.a. CRT–the same technology behind the television.)

Now at the end of the episode, the bitterness has rooted in him, and he sees Jewish conspiracy theories everywhere, even in the Catholic Rontgen.  All of this foreshadows a showdown still to come with, you guessed it, Albert the boy genius himself.

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