Famed physicist Albert Einstein is the subject of a new series produced by Ron Howard. The National Geographic Channel’s show depicts the funny and controversial side of the "Genius" scientist who was known for being silly and political as well as amorous.
According to a Daily Beast interview with Howard, the first episode of the series breaks down the man who became known as one of the world's most well-known Jews to stand up against the Nazis. Einstein ultimately ends up on a Nazi hit list and the pilot episode opens with the assassination of one of his dearest friends. The scene that follows it shows Einstein "shagging his secretary," Howard explained.
The team working on "Genius" was keenly aware of the existing political problems scientists are facing with conservatives, many of whom reject science on a number of issues from climate to evolution and even basic biology. The second episode finds Einstein and his wife trying to flee Nazi Germany but the U.S.'s immigration policies block them. Einstein's science was often dismissed as “Jewish physics” by anti-Semites and detractors. The story follows the couple as they come to the U.S. as a refugee.
"Those pressures and threats on people and narrow-minded thinking and greed and careerism around science and politicizing science and discovery—they’ve never faded entirely,” Howard told the Daily Beast. “But it certainly has not been lost on us that these issues are more up front and center, and reemerging with a level of intensity that we haven’t seen in a long time. It’s the U.S. but it’s also around the world. So those scenes in episode one and in the series definitely carry with them more impact than I think we expected when we began.”
Howard also wondered openly about the ways in which the world would have been different if Einstein had simply arrived in the U.S. and hidden from public view. Instead, Einstein continued his anti-Nazi political activism and continued doing his life's work.
“If he had been on one of those hit lists and just decided to go to his country and dial back, his life would have been a lot safer,” Howard says. “But he had the courage to carry on, to be high profile, come what may. And his life also would have been a lot easier on a personal side had he simply said, ‘I’m going to yield to convention. I’m not going to dedicate myself to my work as much. I’m going to follow the rules and the definition of a great family man.’ Well, he made a trade-off there.”
The political climate wasn't a motivator but it certainly helps promote the story.
“The fact that it’s coming out now and the fact it is so deeply resonant, A) that was not lost on any of us on set and B) it makes me realize that having not appeared as a feature film five years ago is a terrific thing,” co-producer Gigi Pritzker said.
Actor Michael McElhatton plays a German physicist Philipp Lenard who was a Hitler ally and anti-Semite. Howard told him to "think Trump" as he played the role.
The series premieres tonight (Tuesday, April 25) at 8:00 p.m. EST on NatGeo.
You can see an extended trailer below: