Brainy Quote of the Day

Thursday, May 4, 2017


Screen shot from the Genius series on Nat Geo: Einstein on Ars Technica
Topics: Einstein, History, Politics, Relativity, Theoretical Physics

I'm obviously a fan of Einstein for his stance on Civil Rights for African Americans, his views on women's rights, his friendship with Paul Robeson and his views that were decades ahead of his time on social issues that were just percolating in the political cauldron of the day. Above all, he shows the positive impact of an immigrant in our American "melting pot."

I often read biographies of the people we consider giants in science and engineering. What I find disarming and charming is the discovery they, like us, were quite flawed and human with their own eccentricities and foibles. It's easy to deify heroes with the distance of time.

Like most young people, the young Einstein was amorous and prolific in his couplings. He was also indifferent to the emotional impact many of his romantic betrayals had on his many partners, Elsa Einstein acknowledging as much in the first chapter of the Nat Geo series: Genius (ahem: he's sober shtoofing his secretary in one of the first scenes, right before a class. I don't know if that's actual history or hyperbole, but I've read he took off for weeks at a time in full knowledge - and disrespect - of his second spouse).

Excerpt of an interview with Ron Howard at SXSW (South by Southwest) by Ars Technica:

AUSTIN, Texas—Writer, director, and actor Ron Howard is very careful when considering his place in the geek-media universe. Over 20 years ago, his film Apollo 13 kicked off a trajectory of major science-and-heart storytelling, which recently crystallized as an ongoing series-development deal with National Geographic's TV channel.

Apollo 13 convinced Howard that audiences had more hunger for science stories than he'd assumed. "It surprised me pleasantly how interested people were in the science of it. The irony that there were virtually no computers then, and they had to use slide rules... I realized that none of these things were lost on the audience. In fact, it was very engaging. I learned that it wasn't just the adventure or the emotion. There was an intellectual component to what was entertaining and engaging the audiences." He then quoted Neil Degrasse Tyson to remind me that TV's CSI broke the dam open for an even wider audience given the series had major characters applying scientific thought, as opposed to "odd characters hidden away in a room somewhere with a lab coat on."

The pilot episode sees these distinct Einstein eras explored chronologically, and for older Einstein, that means facing the changing political climate in Germany and taking steps toward immigrating to the United States. (Rush, I should add, is absolutely masterful in his performance as the older Einstein, with snark, wit, and charm rolled together in a delightfully light German accent.) Howard insists that the entire sequence, which includes a rise of German nationalism and public hatred for immigrants and scientific thought, had already been locked down before the last American Presidential election concluded.

"It's suddenly politically prescient, which we were... aware of this as we were shooting," Howard says. "Of course, it's not just the United States. There's a call to conservative nationalism [worldwide]. Closing borders, blocking immigrants, imposing controls. That's been going on around the world for some years now—but one of the pressures, the surprises for me, in reading Walter's book, that we really depict episode after episode, are the times when institutional thinkers would impose a barrier to Einstein. And sometimes a threat. Imagine how close we came to not benefiting from his genius! That's shocking. If there's a cautionary element to this story, I hope it's that."

It's also a reminder of the maxim: “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes,” as Mark Twain is often reputed to have said. Quote investigator sites several possible sources other than the witty writer.

National Geographic: Genius

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