Often times, when you hear the words National Geographic channel, your mind wanders to documentaries and anthropologic series, but if you haven’t been watching the network lately, you’ve been missing a lot. NGC has really been upping the entertainment value with scripted shows such as the ‘Mars’ event series (which has just recently been picked up for a second season) and is now airing a new docudrama titled ‘Genius,’ about the life of the renown physicist Albert Einstein. To ensure that the series properly reflects both the science and life of Einstein, the filmmakers of the series turned to real life USC theoretical physicist Dr. Clifford Johnson who not only advised on the accuracy of the science seen in the show but also debunked many of the myths that surround how scientific discoveries are made and their acceptance within peers. Dr. Johnson is not a stranger to working with the entertainment industry as he has also worked on ABC’s Agent Carter, was a regular contributor on PBS’ ‘The Universe,’ and in 2015 appeared in the TV documentary ‘Inside Einstein’s Mind: The Enigma of Space and Time’ among others. ScienceFiction.com was fortunate to sit down with Dr. Clifford to discuss his involvement with ‘Genius,’ why the series is important, and the accuracy of series. ScienceFiction.com (SF): Have you seen the full series yet? Dr. Clifford Johnson (CJ): I’ve only been seeing what is shown but, of course, I have worked extensively on every script down before it started being produced so I have a good picture of how it all looks in my head. SF: How did you get involved with the series? CJ: One of the writers got in touch with me. She knew that I did this sort of thing, science advising in TV and movies and all kinds of things like that and she realized it would be a good idea to have me involved as early as possible in the process to work with everyone right through til the end. SF: What sparked your interest in working on this project? CJ: I think it was a huge opportunity to really show how Einstein was as a person and a scientist. It was also an extremely important opportunity to really unpack what scientists are really like and obviously, Einstein is one of the most famous scientists. And frankly, most portrayals of Einstein and most pictures that people have in their mind is extremely narrow and misleading. This was an opportunity to help get a much more interesting and nuanced picture of who he is as a scientist is on screen. SF: I really enjoyed the first episode. One thing I did come away with was “Dang! Einstein was a player!” CJ: (laughing) He definitely was! SF: ‘Genius’ manages to humanize Einstein which was really eye opening. Sometimes students hear about these scientists but feel, “I can’t achieve that” but National Geographic has seemed to show that these scientists are really just people too. CJ: You absolutely nailed it! That’s the reason I do this a lot. Not just for the show but for other things. One of the things I spend most time on when I’m working on helping writers and filmmakers is to make these people more accessible, to show they are actual human beings and not gods and not just legend. SF: I especially enjoyed how the complex science concepts were incorporated in the series. CJ: I think the writers to their credit did a very good job in laying things out. Noah Pink who created the show wanted to make sure he incorporated the science to illustrate the life of Einstein with the science he was thinking about at that time. So, my role in a number of cases was to help them unpack an idea that they already wanted to introduce into that scene or in some cases help them define or make suggestions. For example, if you are trying to illustrate something from this point in his life, how about you use this piece of science of this scientific idea because that will resonate with the story you are trying to tell on a human scale as well. It was a back and forth collaboration. SF: So the series is very scientifically accurate. CJ: Well, yeah, I mean… defining accuracy in science is always a tough thing but the science that you hear is all real stuff. Another aspect of accuracy, of course, is making sure things are historically accurate and so on and so forth. I was trying for example… there’s a famous thing coming up that is known that happened to Einstein. He couldn’t play his violin for a while because he had injured himself in an experiment. We don’t know what exactly that experiment was, so what I was trying to do was figure out what kind of experiments they were doing in the late 1800s in that part of the world. And with the science and technology that would be available [during that time], what kind of injury could it have been, what could have gotten wrong in that experiment? I wanted to make that as real as possible so that even though historically we didn’t know exactly what it was, it would feel real. So that’s another aspect of the accuracy. Even if you make stuff up to fill in the gaps, you have to make it historically make sense. SF: What part of Einstein’s life did you wish the series would have focused more on or couldn’t get to because of filming constraints? CJ: That’s a good question! I would say there are two aspects. There’s a myth of Einstein that he was a genius who disconnected with what was going on with the rest of science and that he did all these amazing things all on his own. That is just not true. He was part of the scientific community. He was plugged into the science community and he was constantly bouncing ideas off his fellow scientists. As all scientists do. And that’s really not shown as much as I would like…This show did some of that. You’ll see him talking to colleagues and exchanging ideas. You’ll see him learning and trying things out and failing. I just think it’s important if you are doing a portrait of a scientist that you do much of that as possible. If I had my choices, I would show even more of that. Trying things and failing, getting things wrong, being frustrated, bouncing ideas off colleagues and things like that. They showed as much as they could for 10 hours. There’s a lot to show of his life. They did a good job. Better than it’s ever been done, but I would like to have seen more if possible. The other aspect, to be more specific… there’s another myth about Einstein that he was the relativity guy and that he didn’t like quantum physics and so on and so forth. While that’s true to some extent, “I think that most people don’t realize that he was one of the key discovers of the modern quantum physics. It is actually what he got his Nobel Prize for! All through his career, he made amazing contributions to it. All through his career, he made amazing contributions to it. He just didn’t to that thing in 1905 called the Photoelectric Effect that helped people realize modern quantum mechanics. All through this time, he was doing stuff on relativity after 1915, he’s also contributing to quantum mechanics. He’s not just only saying there’s a problem with that. He was actually writing papers that we still use today about quantum mechanics. The crucial thing that makes a laser work was something that he discovered and that’s actually really underappreciated – how key he was to quantum physics. SF: ‘Genius’ has been picked up for a second season. Who would you like to see featured next? CJ: Given that I’ve sent some suggestions along to them, I probably shouldn’t discuss any of them. SF: It’s just us! CJ: (laughing) I think they want to keep it a secret and I wouldn’t want to spoil their thunder. What I would say, I think there are exceptional people in all fields. Speaking as a scientist, if they do come back to doing scientists, I think there are so many diverse examples they can use that can be inspiring and illuminate other aspects of science that would be great for people to be entertained by. I just think there are a ton of great people out there. What I really hope they do though, is make sure they continue showing that genius is not just this magical ability that a few people have. It’s mostly about hard work, practice, failure, moving beyond failure and learning from the people around you and collaborating. “Genius” airs Tuesdays on the National Geographic Channel at 9 p.m.
Exclusive Interview With Theoretical Physicist Dr. Clifford Johnson, The Scientist Behind National Geographic’s ‘Genius’
Janice's first memories of the genre were of watching the original 'Star Trek' and classic 'Doctor Who' episodes (Tom Baker, aka the Fourth Doctor, was her first). Soon, she was introduced to 'Godzilla' and her addiction then spread to books, magazines, movies and comics. Janice continued as a closet geek as her thirst and love for sci-fi grew and was only second to her love of baking. Then one night, on a whim, she answered a tweet to be a writer for ScienceFiction.com and the geek girl insider her was soon set free. Within 3 years she became the Senior Editor for the site. When not writing or editing for ScienceFiction.com, Janice is scouring the internet to feed her sci-fi cravings while defending conspiracy theories, protecting scientific theorems and loving all things science fiction.... and baking cookies.