Advising on Genius: Helping Bring a Real Scientist to Screen

Well, I’ve been meaning to tell you about this for some time, but I’ve been distracted by many other things. Last year I had the pleasure of working closely with the writers and producers on the forthcoming series on National Geographic entitled “Genius”. (Promotional photo above borrowed from the show’s website.)The first season, starting on Tuesday, is about Einstein – his life and work. It is a ten episode arc. I’m going to venture that this is a rather new kind of TV show that I really hope does well, because it could open the door to longer more careful treatments of subjects that usually are considered too “difficult” for general audiences, or just get badly handled in the short duration of a two-hour movie.

Since reviews are already coming out, let me urge you to keep an open mind, and bear in mind that the reviewers (at the time of writing) have only seen the two or three episodes that have been sent to them for review. A review based on two or three episodes of a series like this (which is more like a ten hour movie – you know how these newer forms of “long form TV” work) is akin to a review based on watching the first 25-35 minutes of a two hour film. You can get a sense of tone and so forth from such a short sample, but not much can be gleaned about content to come. So remember that when the various opinion pieces appear in the next few weeks.

So… content. That’s what I spent a lot of time helping them with. I do this sort of thing for movies and TV a lot, as you know, but this was a far deeper dive than I normally do. (Even counting the work I did in 2015-2016 on Agent Carter’s season two. See various posts I did about that.) Remember, this is a show trying to explore Einstein’s life and work, and for any real scientist, these things are intertwined. The science is not a decoration for the show, it’s part of the fabric that the show is woven out of, even it you don’t see it in every scene. So the first part of my job was to teach the writers as much of the science as I could in the allowed time (they actually knew a lot from the research they did on their own, and were very receptive to a lot of what I told them), making suggestions for how they might use it in the story they wanted to tell – trying to find ways to distill several of the core ideas in a way that could be useable in the show. But – as I aim to do every time I do this kind of job – I also spent a lot of time working on trying to find ways to help them understand how the scientist works as a real human being – how the scientific side fits in with everything else – and how scientists actually work, speak, and do the work they do.

So this meant me taking every opportunity to urge them to stay away from a lot of what I consider to be some of the most damaging aspects of the Einstein mythology: Brilliance (“genius”) without the hard work that truly underlies it; Amazing work done in total isolation, without collaborators, sounding-boards, or knowledge of the rest of what’s going on in the field; the standard “old man with crazy hair” go-to imagery, and so on. Instead, I tried to urge them to show him working on his ideas, trying to develop them, making mistakes, talking and working with other scientists, etc. This also meant there were several opportunities to touch on several other scientists from the period that were key to the story of the science that emerged, and the writers did a good job of seizing those opportunities.

After meeting with the writers a number of times, they just got on with the business of writing, doing an excellent job of distilling vast amounts of complex material from many sources, and they swiftly began to tell a multi-faceted story. (I love how writers rooms work, and how the tasks are divided up, how the collaboration is run, and so forth. It was a pleasure to see those modes of working deployed on this kind of material – I could say more, but it will take me too far afield.) Thenceforth, a lot of time was spent reading scripts as they came in, and writing lots of detailed notes on many aspects (the science itself, the scientists, the historical aspects of the science of the period, Einstein’s particular story, helping plausibly fill in things – scientific or related – that were not known but were needed to tell a good story), reading rewrites, writing more notes, and so forth. I also gave a lot of advice for how things might look and feel, how various experiments or various machines of the period might work, and so forth. (I was not able to be present on set to help with the chalkboards and so forth, so I’m curious to know how those turn out.)

My working relationship with the writers and show-runner was really great. This was another instructive (but still rare) example of how a science advisor can be used fruitfully to enrich every aspect of the story the filmmakers want to tell (as opposed to just being a fact-checker who comes in at a late stage).

We did not agree on everything, of course. There will be a few (and really, it’s not that many) things in the show that represent choices made to serve the needs of telling a good story, perhaps not sticking exactly to known history, and I respect that – it’s not my show, and I’m not a professional writer. (Also, it’s not a documentary.) So I gave my advice, gave enough information and ideas I could to help them make informed choices, and then stood aside. That’s my job in this context.

I’ve not seen how those final ready-to-shoot scripts were turned into the episodes we’ll all see, but the final scripts themselves tell a great story, with a very good balance of the life and the science and how it all fits together. I think a lot of that is likely to make it to the screen in good shape as this is a writer’s medium (and especially given that the show had a really good head-writer/show-runner, Ken Biller, working with some really good directors, from Ron Howard onward, and they all tried to keep a lot of the original vision of the creator of the whole thing, writer Noah Pink (who deserves huge recognition in all of this).)

Finally, I’ve got to say a special thanks to Angelina Burnett, one of the excellent writers on the show, for getting in touch with me (through my wife*) in the first place and asking if I’d be interested in helping out on the show. It was a great opportunity to help out on something that I really believe has a chance to change things significantly on television, by encouraging more use of long-form TV to tell complex dramatic stories about real people with rich and nuanced career arcs in pursuits (like science) that aren’t considered to be “accessible”, and to explore more complex ideas along the way. This is the kind of TV that science (of all kinds) can really benefit from, by giving people a better idea of what real scientists are like, and what sorts of real challenges they face in doing their work. For that reason, I urge you to support the show by simply watching it, keeping an open mind about it in the face of lots of things that will be said before it has had a chance to unfold. I’m sure it won’t be perfect, but do keep in mind the potential such a show has to change things.


*Thanks aef!

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3 Responses to Advising on Genius: Helping Bring a Real Scientist to Screen

  1. Mark Peifer says:

    Makes me wish I had a TV 🙂

  2. Clifford says:

    Everything streams online these days. Go to their website once it starts airing (after Tuesday).


  3. Mark Peifer says:

    Cool! Thanks for the pointer