Einstein’s Big Idea

Whatever dribs of information nonscientists remember about Einstein's genius, this smartly written, handsomely produced "Nova" special fills in the blanks and then some. Given the association of the famous formula with the A bomb, narrator John Lithgow reminds us that there is also "a parallel story of creation and beauty."

Cast:
Albert Einstein - Aidan McArdle Mileva Maric - Shirley Henderson Michael Faraday - Steven Robertson Antoine Lavoisier - Julian Rhind-Tutt Emelie du Chatelet - Helene de Fougerolles Lise Meitner - Emily Wool
Narrator: John Lithgow.

Whatever dribs of information nonscientists remember about Einstein’s genius, this smartly written, handsomely produced “Nova” special fills in the blanks and then some. Given the association of the famous formula with the A bomb and its destructiveness, narrator John Lithgow reminds us that there is also “a parallel story of creation and beauty.”

Far from just rumination about Albert Einstein, the production re-creates the stories of other scientists on whose shoulders he stood. That list ranges from Michael Faraday, a 19th-century blacksmith’s son who provided stunning breakthroughs regarding magnetism and electricity, to Emelie du Chatelet, who raised three kids and bedded Voltaire while dreaming up her theories about squaring an object’s speed. According to Voltaire, the 18th-century noble was “a brave man, whose only fault was being a woman.”

Not surprisingly, the lion’s share of the well-paced production is devoted to Einstein, whose astonishing explosion of creativity in 1905 — when he published five groundbreaking papers — was met with years of indifference before the scientific community caught up with and recognized the importance of his work. Yet this special is hardly a whitewash, noting that the scientist divorced his doting wife, remarried and had several affairs once he achieved renown.

The final chapter, meanwhile, deals with Lise Meitner, whose work was instrumental in splitting the atom, despite being chased from Germany because she was a Jew.

Writer-producer-director Gary Johnstone seamlessly mixes the dramatic reenactments with testimonial from various scientists and historians, including David Bodanis, whose book provides the project’s foundation.

Nearly everyone involved rises to the occasion, with clear narration that captures the grandeur of the work and even the scientists bringing their “A” games, speaking in understandable but authoritative soundbites.

Oh, as for the theory, it’s something about energy equaling the product of mass and the speed of light squared. Fascinating stuff. It might even be worth reading a book about it or something, but for now, this’ll do.

Einstein's Big Idea

PBS, Tue. Oct. 11, 8 p.m.

Production: A Nova production by Darlow Smithson Prods. for WGBH/Boston. Senior executive producer, Paula S. Apsell; executive producer, John Smithson; line producer, Vanessa Tovell; producer, writer, director, Gary Johnstone, based on the book "E = mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation" by David Bodanis;

Crew: camera, Christopher Titus King; editor, Rick Aplin; music, Michael J. McEvoy; production designer, Judith Stanley Smith; casting, Sarah Trevis. 120 MIN.

Cast: Albert Einstein - Aidan McArdle Mileva Maric - Shirley Henderson Michael Faraday - Steven Robertson Antoine Lavoisier - Julian Rhind-Tutt Emelie du Chatelet - Helene de Fougerolles Lise Meitner - Emily Wool
Narrator: John Lithgow.

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