Monday, 10 July 2017

Genius: portraying Albert Einstein as a human being, not a Hollywood stereotype

I recently watched the National Geographic docudrama series Genius, presenting a warts-and-all look at the life and work of Albert Einstein. In these post-truth times in which even a modicum of intellectual thought is often regarded with disdain, it's interesting to see how a scientific icon is portrayed in a high-budget, high-profile series.

A few notable examples excepted, Dr Frankenstein figures still inform much of Hollywood's depiction of STEM practitioners. Inventors are frequently compartmentalised as either patriotic or megalomaniac, often with a love of military hardware; Jurassic Park's misguided and naive Dr John Hammond seemingly a rare exception. As for mathematicians, they are often depicted with more than a touch of insanity, such as in Pi or Fermat's Room.

So does Genius break the mould or follow the public perception of scientists as freaky, geeky, nerdy or plain evil? The script is a fairly sophisticated adaptation of real life events, although the science exposition suffers as a result. Despite some computer graphic sequences interwoven with the live action, the attempts to explore Einstein's thought experiments and theories are suggestive rather than comprehensive, the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his scientific legacy. Where the series succeeds is in describing the interaction of all four STEM disciplines: science, technology, engineering and mathematics; and the benefits when they overlap. The appalling attitudes prevalent in the academia of his younger years are also brought to vivid life, with such nonsense as not questioning tutors piled onto the usual misogyny and xenophobia.

Albert Einstein

Contrary to the popular conception of the lone genius - and counter to the series' title - the role of Einstein's friends such as Marcel Grossmann and Michele Besso as his sounding boards and mathematical assistants is given a high profile. In addition, the creative aspect of science is brought to the fore in sequences that show how Einstein gained inspiration towards his special and general theories of relativity.

The moral dimension of scientific research is given prominence, from Fritz Haber's development of poison gas to Leo Szilard's persuasion of Einstein to both encourage and later dissuade development of atomic weapons. As much as the scientific enterprise might appear to be separate from the rest of human concern, it is deeply interwoven with society; the term 'laboratory conditions' applies to certain processes, not to provide a wall to isolate science from everything else. Scientists in Genius are shown to have the same human foibles as everyone else, from Einstein's serial adultery (admittedly veering to Hollywood family drama at times, paternal guilt complex etal) to Philipp Lenard's dismissal of Einstein's theories due to his anti-Semitism rather than any scientific evidence. So much for scientific impartiality!

The last few episodes offer a poignant description of how even the greatest of scientific minds lose impetus, passing from creative originality as young rebels to conservative middle age stuck-in-the-muds, out of touch with the cutting edge. General readership books on physics often claim theoretical physicists do their best work before they are thirty, with a common example being that Einstein might as well have spent his last twenty years fishing. Although not as detailed as the portrayal of his early, formative years, Einstein's obsessive (but failed) quest to find fault with quantum mechanics is a good description of how even the finest minds can falter.

All in all, the first series of Genius is a very noble attempt to describe the inspiration and background that led to some revolutionary scientific theories. The irony is that by concentrating on Einstein as a human being it might help the wider public gain a better appreciation, if not comprehensive understanding, of the work of scientists and role of STEM in society. Surely that's no bad thing, especially if it makes Hollywood rethink the lazy stereotype of the crazy-haired scientist seeking world domination. Or even encourages people to listen to trained experts rather than the rants of politicians and religious nutbars. Surely that's not a difficult choice?