Albert Einstein’s life story teaches lessons that go beyond science class in ‘Genius’

Geoffrey Rush as Albert Einstein in "Genius"
An elderly Albert Einstein, played by Geoffrey Rush, blows out a candle on a birthday cake in the final episode of National Geographic Channel’s “Genius” TV series. (National Geographic Channel Photo)

Don’t expect to hear a lot about relativity in the final chapter of Albert Einstein’s life story, as told tonight in the season finale of National Geographic Channel’s “Genius” TV series.

But do expect to see a lot about the humanitarian – and all-too-human – side of the 20th century’s best-known scientist.

Even if you’ve missed previous episodes, tonight’s two-hour closer packs in enough drama for a whole season: There’s the struggle to save Einstein’s colleagues from Nazi terror, the race to build the atomic bomb, Einstein’s affair with a Russian spy, and FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover’s campaign to discredit the troublesome scientist as a communist.

Then there are Einstein’s problematic family relationships, which are resolved in a fast-flowing series of flashbacks and flashforwards. Even the great man’s famously preserved brain plays a cameo.

Clifford Johnson, a theoretical physicist at the University of Southern California who served as a science consultant for the show, says Einstein’s focus on social issues came to the fore in the last 20 years of his life.

“His guiding light seemed to be to remember the humanity, remember the individual’s human rights, remember the dignity,” Johnson said.

That led Einstein to become conflicted when it came to the political issues of the day: He was a pacifist whose letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt sparked the creation of history’s most destructive weapons. And he was a strong believer in internationalism at a time when the concept was viewed with suspicion. (Not unlike more recent times in American history.)

Physicist Clifford Johnson
Physicist Clifford Johnson was a science consultant for National Geographic Channel’s “Genius” TV series about Albert Einstein. (USC Photo)

“He’s known to have a lack of respect for authority that doesn’t have anything behind it except for being authority,” Johnson said. “That scared some people.”

Johnson said Einstein’s latter years hold a lesson for modern-day scientists, many of whom are agonizing over how deeply to get involved in politics and public affairs.

“His science, on the other hand, was, relatively speaking, on the decline,” Johnson said.

Einstein struggled mightily to reconcile the principles of relativity with the “spooky” world of quantum mechanics, through what he hoped would be a unified field theory. More than 60 years later after his death in 1955, physicists are still struggling.

“Genius” gives viewers a taste of Einstein’s mental wrestling matches with quantum physicists, but the most touching parts of the show have to do with his personal life – particularly his stormy relationship with his son Hans Albert Einstein.

One of the paradoxes of Einstein’s life was how selfless he could be about humanitarian issues – and how inconsiderate he could be about the people who were closest to him. The heart-rending moments experienced by the elderly Einstein, played brilliantly by Geoffrey Rush in “Genius,” could well bring a tear to the eye of the geekiest fan.

Johnson said he hopes the show leaves viewers with a valuable lesson about what genius is, and what it isn’t.

“The popular understanding of the term ‘genius’ is problematic,” he said. “The more you talk about genius as being this amazing talent, the more it becomes something that just pushes people away. And I think that’s wrong.”

Innate talent factors into genius, but so does tenacity. Even the most gifted practitioners of science – or sports, for that matter – have to work hard. Johnson drew a parallel to basketball great Michael Jordan.

“Michael Jordan was the first one to show up for practice, and the last one to leave,” Johnson said. “He wanted it. It’s the same thing with Einstein.”

Being a genius also means asking questions, even if the questions go against conventional wisdom. Johnson said that’s particularly true in science. Putting a value on the capacity for wonder, and the willingness to keep wondering about the workings of the world, may rank among the biggest lessons from Einstein’s life story.

Genius, it turns out, isn’t just for geniuses.

“Intense curiosity takes you a long way,” Johnson said. “You can show how everyone can go perhaps farther than they think they can.”