Einstein: A life of math and music, rebellion and romance and pure genius

At times -- but not too often -- cable TV lives up to its potential. It tries something large and ambitious. The current example is "Genius," a scripted mini-series Tuesdays (rerunning Saturdays) on the National Geographic Channel, Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

There are lives that
seem too large even for Hollywood.

Albert Einstein
sprawled across history – from the rise of Hitler to the birth of
Israel – and across modern thinking. “His fingerprints are on
every great invention – lasers, micro-chips, atomic power, GPS,”
said Walter Isaacson, whose biography has been adapted into the first
season of “Genius.”

This wasn't a
two-hour life, he said. “I thought it was wonderful to do it as a
10-part series.”

Yes, Isaacson thinks
his other biographies would work as subsequent “Genius” seasons.
Maybe not Steve Jobs (too soon), but definitely Ben Franklin and his
upcoming subject, Leonardo da Vinci.

What do these people
have in common? “They were rebellious, questioning authority ....
They had imagination and creativity,” Isaacson said.

And they mixed arts
with science. Jobs ran Pixar, da Vinci painted (quite well, we're
told), Franklin wrote witticisms ... and Einstein played the violin
passionately. “Mozart's music is so pure and beautiful,” he once
said, “that I see it as a reflection of the universe itself.”

This became a
classic image of genius – the violin, the sprawling hair, the
surprising twinkle. “Einstein looked like an Einstein,” Isaacson
joked. And his life backed up that image.

He was clearly an
outsider in Germany – partly because he was Jewish and partly
because of his individualist nature. Einstein disliked regimen in
education, religion and relationships. “He ran away from Germany,”
Isaacson said, “but they brought him back” by offering the
professorship he cherished.

Alongside many
affairs, Einstein had major romances with three women who seemed
wildly disparate:

-- Marie Winteler
was a teen-ager at the Swiss home where he lived as a student. She
may have seemed sweet and simple, but that wasn't a dealbreaker.
“Einstein had a sweetness to him,” Isaacson said.

-- Elsa Einstein
Lowenthal was his cousin, an eager cook who became his second wife.
He was 40 when they married -- “he needed a domestic partner,”
Isaacson said – and she died 16 years later.

-- And in between
was the marriage that defined him. “I admire him for falling in
love with Mileva Maric, who was not known for her beauty ... but was
known for her beautiful mind,” Isaacson said.

Experts have debated
how much she had to do with his breakthroughs. Isaacson's book
(“Einstein,” 2007, Simon & Schuster) gives her credit for
many things – research, copyediting, debating ideas – but says
the theories were his.

Still, she was the
one who was there for what was called the “miracle year” -- when
a 26-year-old patent clerk published four papers that shook academia.

Some scholars
resisted, Isaacson said. “They labelled relativity as 'Jewish
science.'” In 1933, Einstein emigrated, as did many others –
changing history. “When they came to the U.S., he and his fellow
refugees” would develop the nuclear power that Hitler's own
scientists had been racing to create.

Einstein became a
folk hero at Princeton, even if his breakthroughs were behind him. He
spent years attacking some of the same quantum mechanics theories he
had helped develop.

This was someone who
always second-guessed the accepted reasoning, Isaacson said. “He
said that God must have played a joke on him, by making him an
authority figure.”

There were many such
contrasts. Einstein balked at the orderliness of society ... but
savored precise music and searched futiley for a way to bring all the
theories into a unified whole. He distanced himself from religion ...
but championed the Jewish state. He was a romantic who botched his
romances. He was a far-flung figure, the sort who needs a 10-episode

-- “Genius,” 9
p.m. Tuesdays, rerunning at 11, National Geographic; Saturdays, 10
p.m. and midnight.

-- A scripted
mini-series, co-produced by Ron Howard. The May 16 episode catches
Einstein's “miracle year”; it's the fourth of 10, with the
previous ones rerunning at 5:45, 7 and 8 p.m.

-- In the May 23
one, Einstein re-meets Elsa. The most recent episodes will rerun at
6, 7 and 8 p.m.