Albert Einstein once famously said: “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity – and I’m not sure about the universe.”
Behind the prolific German-Jewish physicist who unlocked the mysteries of the cosmos was a man grappling with a tumultuous private life and rising anti-Semitism in Europe, as revealed in Genius, a new 10-part series charting his life from National Geographic, starting on Sunday.
Featuring Einstein’s lovers, enemies and fellow scientific luminaries, the cast includes Emily Watson as his second wife – and first cousin – Elsa Einstein, as well as Australian actor Geoffrey Rush as the celebrated scientist.
How much did you know about Einstein before you started working on Genius?
Geoffrey Rush (GR): I was four-years-old when Einstein died, so there was not a huge amount of overlap. Everything I know is from the legend of who he was, because he was one of the most idiosyncratic figures of the 20th century. He was a cult figure, as famous as Charlie Chaplin. In a pre-celebrity world, they were household names. Chaplin for being an amazing filmmaker and clown, and Einstein for being a complex theoretical physicist, who wrote a theory that toppled all the existing orthodoxy that had been around for 300 years.
What were you most surprised to learn about Einstein?
GR: There was quite a bit. He was famous for being famous as a scientist. Everyone knows he had ridiculous hair, which no-one had else had. It probably came out of his youth at the Prussian Academy where scientists were a little woolier. There are so many photos of him meeting other famous people, like meeting Marilyn Monroe, and of him sticking out his tongue and being cheeky. The great thing about this series is that it looks at his youth. Ultimately, although non-linear, the series shows Einstein from age 5, when his father gave him a compass and young Albert was intrigued at what forces were at work that made the needle always point in one direction, until 76 when he died. There is a lot of that people don’t know.
What were you most surprised to learn about Einstein?
GR: I suppose how open and gregarious and truly childlike he was for a man with such complexity of ideas. Some people have tried to classify him as somewhat autistic, but I don’t think it is true, because he loved sailing and intellectual company. He came out of a flourishing Jewish societal world in early 20th century Germany and he would hang out with his friends and they would play music. Eventually he loved to travel and he had an expansive personality. I was lucky enough to get a lot of footage of him visiting Britain and the USA and he seemed to greet press like Groucho Marx. He had people laughing and was kind of clown-like with his naivety. Rumour has it he was thought of as dopey and a slow starter, but he was just day-dreaming and that ended up being his greatest strength.
What were some of his quirks?
GR: I noticed in early footage, in his teenage years, that he was very rebellious and anti-authoritarian and he hated the German militaristic sensibility. He was quite outspoken and forthright and sometimes lacking in confidence.
Did you know he was such a ladies’ man?
GR: I didn’t know about that, but I suppose if you put that equation together, he had a lot of celebrity. I think he had many young lovers, because he moved around a lot. He gave up his German passport and was a bit of a gallivant. He was bright and some women find that deeply attractive. And he had humour. He liked a partner in his life and he found that with Elsa, after his sad and awkward failure of a first marriage to Mileva Maric. He knew his gift only functioned if he lived a well-ordered and coordinated life. He was fortunate with Elsa to find someone happy to be that person. She didn’t match his intellect like Mileva did. Mileva was brilliant, but Elsa was happy to be his manager, mother, organiser, PR person and that marriage was one of deep friendship, but not particularly passionate. She gave him license to have affairs. They were radical progressives on that level.
What does the word genius mean to you?
GR: The German philosopher, Schopenhauer, says: “Talent hits a target that no one else can hit, genius hits a target that no-one else can see.” We can apply that to Einstein. He engaged in thought experiments. He would let his mind wander and drift off and speculate and always obsessed from youth. “What if I could travel faster than the speed of light, what would light look like?” Pretty trippy.
What do you hope viewers will get from this series?
GR: I think people might be quite surprised at how immediate the sense of drama is, in a world particularly undergoing radical shifts. There have been arguments about the value of science for humankind and for goodness. There is a part concerning the First World War, where Fritz Haber [Nobel prize-winning chemist] finds out that Germany is going to run out of food and he discovers extracting nitrogen and rescues Germany. He also discovered the weapon of chlorine gas under the assumption less lives would be lost and it would end the war quicker. Ethical dilemmas dominate the science in the story and are interwoven with domestic stuff.
Have you enjoyed playing Einstein?
GR: Yes. Enormously! I thought I would have to go and act playing a genius everyday on set, but there are many banal and surprising moments. For example, in the end of the series, he meets a neighbour, Alice, and she wants him to help, or basically, do her homework for her. He guides her mind into the mystery of maths on a level that would be exciting rather than rigid and formal. I read that someone, who was a student of Einstein, wrote of him: “He was just the most generous human being.” We don’t find many of them around now. Everyone has so much ego, but he seemed interested in the better sides of our nature.
Genius airs on Sunday, 23 April, 9pm on National Geographic.