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Hollywood Seeks Science Help with Einstein Series

Monday, June 12th, 2017

USC Physicist Dr. Johnson addresses the need for science in today’s movies and the struggles between scientists and engineers.

By John Blyler, Editor, JB Systems Tech and Media

Quotable Quotes:

> It is still very much an anomaly that a Hollywood story involving science gets a science advisor.

>… scientists view the world and most aspects of their life through the lens of the science that they do.

> Things get complicated … This means that you probably don’t have either the time, resources or expertise to also do the experiments.

> There is a little wrinkle in the show about this attempt to make a division between science and engineering (or experimental vs. theoretical physics).

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview the physics script advisor to the National Geographic TV series known as GENIUS. The first series of GENIUS was based on Walter Isaacson’s critically acclaimed book “Einstein: His Life and Universe,” adapted by writer Noah Pink. Through 10 episodes, GENIUS charts how an “imaginative, rebellious patent clerk, who couldn’t get a teaching job or a doctorate, unlocked the mysteries of the atom and the universe.”

Dr. Clifford Johnson, a University of Southern California (USC) physicist who has been the advisor on the script of GENIUS, has been a frequent guest on a number of programs on the Discovery Channel, History, BBC, and others. He helps artists, filmmakers, writers, and other shapers of our culture include science in their work. What follows is the interview edited for clarity and readability. – JB

Blyler: How do you work with Hollywood to include science in their movies?

Johnson: The goal of the GENIUS series producers was to include science accurately and not add it merely as decoration. After all, this was a story about the life of Albert Einstein, arguably the most famous scientist ever. They wanted to tell his life story while including the story of the physics challenges and interests that he had. One of the things that I tried to impress upon them was that these two things were tangled up.

To some extent, scientists view the world and most aspects of their life through the lens of the science that they do. That provides movie producers with an opportunity to tell a life story in a much richer and more interesting way than they would usually do it. The challenge, then, is to make sure that you get the science part right.

It turned into a great collaboration, which is extremely unusual. It is still very much an anomaly that a Hollywood story involving science gets a science advisor. It is equally unusual for the science advisor to be brought in early in the project – which I was. To their credit, the script writers had been doing a ton of research. The writers table was full of books about Einstein, almost every biography you’ve ever heard of about Einstein and related things. Naturally, the primary source was Walter Issicson’s book, which was the basis for the series.

Figure 1: Ron Howard directed new National Geographic series, GENIUS.

Happily, I was able to help them with some of the physics that they didn’t understand or physics that hadn’t been covered in that story. I was able to help them bring that physics into the story telling.

Blyler: One of the things that always interested me about Einstein was his debates with Neil Bohr and dinners with Carl Jung. Are any of those encounters in this series?

Johnson: Absolutely. It’s really very cool. If you didn’t know the Einstein story you might think the writers were just making stuff up. You might think there was no way all these famous people were in the same room or maybe the writers were simply “spicing it up.” But no, this was Einstein: a known ladies’ man, philanderer or what have you.

Here’s what I mean. Episode #1 of the show opens with a car chase. The car is pushed off the road, people get out of the lead car and they machine-gun someone in the car. You might think that the writers were just making this up, trying to make it into an action movie. But this actually happened! A friend of Einstein’s is actually gunned down. And this is the beginning of the rise of the Nazi regime. So basically Einstein’s story is ready for movies.

Jung is definitely a series character in the story. There are parties in Berlin, in Austria, in Vienna, and other locations where these people all hung out with each other. There are some side characters that are sprinkled in here and there, as people that he probably met, but the core meetings actually happened. In fact, there are way more meetings and encounters of significance then they had space to put into the series.

Blyler: It sometimes seems to the engineering community that scientists get all of the glory and credit in movies and the eye of the general public. Typically, engineers take the discoveries of scientist and turn these discoveries into something that will hopefully benefit mankind. What is your take on this sentiment?

Figure: Albert Einstein, played in his elder years by Geoffrey Rush with his wife (Emily Watson) is greeted by an admiring public in the series “Einstein.”

Johnson: Well, it depends upon the particular phenomenon we are talking about. It also depends upon what you might call an engineer versus what I might call an engineer. Einstein was a theoretical physicist who thought up things that were eventually experimentally verified. A lot of that experimental verification was done by people who would think of themselves as experimental physicists as opposed to theoretical ones.

There is a spectrum of expertise. Also, it’s partially a consequence of how the world has gone. Things get complicated and you need to devote yourself and the techniques that you learn to discoveries through thinking, through writing equations, through following the mathematics and things like that. This means that you probably don’t have either the time, resources or expertise to also do the experiments.

That is how things have gone these days. And it’s been like that for over a century in some areas of science. That was certainly the case with Einstein’s work.

Blyler: Wasn’t Einstein known for incorporating the work of others?

Johnson: In his time, there were affects that already were observed but for which there was no explanation. Often, others reported the results of an experiment but offered little explanation for the results. Recall Planck’s observations make about radiation. Einstein considered the affect and then developed an explanation that lead to the birth of quantum mechanics and quantum physics. His 1905 paper on the photo-electric effect was the reason he later received the Nobel Prize in physics.

There is a little wrinkle in the show about this attempt to make a division between science and engineering (or experimental vs. theoretical physics). Every show needs a big antagonist. So to with the Einstein story. His rival was a real scientist known as Philipp Lenard, who gets painted as almost a little bit of a cartoon bad guy in the show. But that again is not embellishment. Lenard was like that in real life. He was constantly jealous of lots of people who made discoveries and got credit when he was his due because he (Lenard) invented some of the machines that they used to achieve those discoveries!

Lenard hated the stuff Einstein was doing because Einstein was figuring things out by thinking. Lenard didn’t believe this was the way you were supposed to do science. Instead, he believed one should do physical experiments to discover things. Further, it was his way of driving a political wedge between the kinds of science he considered legitimate and what he called “Jewish Science.” Lenard aligned himself with the growing Nazi regime. He was one of the people responsible for discrediting so many great German scientists who just happened to be Jewish. Ultimately, many of these Jewish scientists either disappeared or were forced to leave Germany – like Einstein.

Blyler: This seems like a cautionary tale for our times, too. Thank you.

Dr. Clifford Johnson write regularly on personal blog called Asymptotia.

GENIUS airs every Tuesday. Visit the trailer.

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