Sunday, September 14, 2008

"Einstein's Big Idea"...back again

In case you missed it the first time around [October 11th, 2005], PBS will offer NOVA's "Einstein's Big Idea" this Tuesday, September 16th. Frankly, I was not impressed and displeased with Einstein's treatment and opinion of Mileva Maric.

From the love letters between Albert and Mileva Maric: The rules of a relationship...humm.

A. You will see to it (1) that my clothes and linen are kept in order, (2) that I am served three regular meals a day in my room, (3) that my bedroom and study are always kept in good order and my desk is not touched by anyone other than me.

B. You will renounce all personal relations with me, except when they are required to keep up social appearances. In particular, you will not request (1) that I sit with you at home, (2) that I go out with you or travel with you.

C. You will promise explicitly to observe the following points in contact with me: (1) you will expect no affection from me and you will not reproach me for this, (2) you must answer at once when I speak to you, (3) you must leave my bedroom or study at once without protesting when I ask you to go.

D. You will promise not to denigrate me in the eyes of the children either by word or deed.

I think by the time this was written the marriage was on a slippery slope to failure. Such was the end of ten years of companionship. It is interesting to note that the parcel of the letters that was offered at auction in the winter of 1996 fell far short of Christie's estimated worth of nearly $2,000,000. The whole lot went for about $800.00 while a book dealer in California paid nearly $400,00 for 1913 and 1914 musings as Einstein developed the general theory of relativity. Go figure. I would sell my love letters for 800k in a heart beat--all three of them.


"Einstein's Big Idea"

NOVA's website for "Einstein's Big Idea"

And the transcript from another Einstein offering.

"Einstein Revealed"

"Making Einstein's Big Idea"


Gary Johnstone

September 2005


I worked on the film Einstein's Big Idea for about eighteen months—from early research to completion of the edit. In all that time two questions recurred: How does a filmmaker write a film about science geniuses? How do you get actors to play physicists? As we Brits like to say, "Blimey!"

My short (and more truthful) answer to both those questions is that you follow your nose and hope for the best. My considered answer (and one which conveniently rewrites history with the benefit of hindsight) would be as follows:

My dad was an electrical engineer and a part-time artist. So my brain has receptors for both flavors of human endeavor. I studied physics and chemistry at high school. I studied psychology, philosophy of science, and artificial intelligence at university. I studied the nature of creativity at grad school. But of course I hung around with the art school lot and the theater group crowd. So I'm a filmmaker, but I'm also not an alien to the world of physics and I have a vague memory of T.S. Kuhn.

What struck me most about the book E=mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation by David Bodanis, on which the program is based, were the human stories behind the icons. I guess I wanted to be iconoclastic. In a vaguely jealous way, I wanted to see the flawed person behind the myth.

Einstein was a bit of a dude, a skirt-chaser. Faraday was driven by a fundamentalist religious faith. Lavoisier was a really uptight guy. Maxwell, a hero in my homeland of Scotland, was someone I knew nothing about (despite walking into a million buildings named after him). Émilie du Châtelet, just a wild, wonderful person, and Lise Meitner, an adventure story/opera all on her own. How can you not make a great film with such a cast?

So having established that scientists are not boring, I moved onto stage two. I read everything I could, right down to primary sources—diaries and letters. Then I visited esteemed professors across the great lands of America. Only one made me feel like a fool. He wasn't trying to, he just had that attitude: "I'll explain it once, if you don't get it, then I haven't got the time to explain it twice." Eventually, after about six months of study, I felt I just about "got it." Then I had to find a way of explaining it to the "myself" of six months previously. Luckily I had an advisory panel of professors and high-school physics teachers to guide me. To be honest, it was trial and error.

In making a 110-minute film about two hundred years of science, you have to be ever-so-slightly reductionist. I boiled the science down as much as I could. There is a fine line between too much and too little science in a program like NOVA. The viewers who understand the science want more science; those attracted to the human stories want less science. You can't win. We had a slogan on set when we were filming: "When the science gets boring, cut to the sex."

I think the thing that comes across most powerfully to me about all the geniuses in the program is that they were all hugely passionate for their subjects and totally unreconstructed workaholics. I've only given a taste of how bright, how addicted to their mission, how "other" these scientists were. We only scratched the surface of these remarkable people.

If anything, Einstein's Big Idea is more of a fairy tale than a definitive account. It's meta-reality. In fact, what I've done is the opposite of what I thought I was setting out to do: I've turned physicists into heroes. It's a very contentious thing to do in the world of history of science. Quite a lot of physicists who have seen the film seem to like it, however. Why should cops, firefighters, and soldiers get all the mythologizing?

And to finish, how do you explain physicists to actors? I repeat, "Blimey!" Well, I tried to tell them how keen you all are, how absorbed and intense. I went to great lengths to unpick your wonderfully complex, bizarre personalities. You should have seen the blank expressions. In the end, two words solved the problem. "Star Trek." Just say the gobbledegook and keep smiling! Of course, the actors got the passion, the obsession, and the drive, but the math and physics? Forget about it!

[Gary Johnstone is producer, director, and writer of Einstein's Big Idea, based on the book E=mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation by David Bodanis.]

E=mc2...Einstein's idea?

I wrote on October 12th, 2005:

For the most part the hype was not far off the mark for NOVA's "Einstein's Big Idea " was an entertaining section of physics and history of science. I was pleased in that Einstein was not the core of presentation and that antecedent events and personalities were introduced. Actually, as advertised, the star of the docudrama was "E=mc²". It was refreshing to note individuals such as Sir Humphry Davy, Michael Faraday, Robert Clerk Maxwell, Émilie du Châletet, Isaac Newton, Lise Meitner, Otto Hahn, Marie-Anne Pierette Paulze, Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier and interwove their contributions to the equation. [All pre-Einstein dramatizations smacked of the short lived Steve Allen PBS production "You Are There" many years ago.] Despite the showcase of Émilie du Châletet and Lise Meitner, it sidestepped the controversial issue of Maleva Maric and portrayed her as a domestic, mother, and "Do you want me to check your mathematics?" person. Her whole role was underplayed as compared to the cool performances and significance of Émilie du Châletet and Lise Meitner. For the most part, women got a "bum rap" and it says little of anything encouraging young women to pursue science and more of the social times of the eras. Einstein himself comes off as the typical personification of undergraduate males: Lazy, cafe [pub] patrons, over confident, and in Einstein's case arrogant and devoid of establishing meaningful relationships [with either his wife or most colleagues].

The production itself was elaborate and well done. There were lots of details especially in the laboratories of Sir Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday. The rotating wire around an iron core floating in a pool of mercury was spectacular. And, it was good that the special, computer generated effects were minimal. The balance between the historical production and input from contemporary scientists was informative and not overdone punctuating each element of E=mc² with relevant material or relevant comments on the personalities.

There appears to be a shift in the methodology of NOVA in the past decade or so for the hard hitting format has been replaced with dramatic representations. Maybe this is what it takes to get science to the public. The 112 minute two part production was better than expected and I am sure David Bodanis's book E=mc²: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation would offer detailed, quiet insight that just couldn't be covered in the film.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

We were fed decades of Albert Einstein as the quaint and kindly old absent-minded professor with the wavy white hair.

This is in thanks to no small part due to his long time secretary, who guarded his real personal life until her death in the 1980s. Only then did the general public start getting the true (or at least truer) picture of Einstein the human being and not the God of Physics.

I too am appalled at how he treated his first wife. His second wife seemed more like his mother and housekeeper than a true companion, which is probably what Einstein wanted all along.

Human beings are so disappointing sometimes. Diogenes will just have to keep on searching with his latern for ages to come.