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Witnessing the acts of geniuses

October 11, 2005|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

To mark the centenary of the "miracle year" in which, in the course of three short papers and an addendum, young Albert Einstein changed the shape of the universe, "Nova," the PBS science series, tonight presents "Einstein's Big Idea," a fantastically grand docudramatic adaptation of David Bodanis' book "E=mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation."

An international co-production shot on location in England, France and Switzerland, with a cast of familiar if not famous foreign actors, it is educational and interesting and worthwhile, and often, in its collisions of ambition and corniness, not a little silly.

In order to explain complicated science and make scientific history vivid, director-writer Gary Johnstone mixes full-blown scripted passages with explanatory narration (by John Lithgow) and professorial talking heads, including Bodanis. It's the talking heads, excited by their subject, who provide the most excitement on screen.

The big idea behind "Big Idea" -- beyond the central notion that the constancy of the speed of light makes everything else in the universe malleable -- is that science builds upon science and that Einstein (Aidan McArdle, "Ella Enchanted") was a link in a chain of restless superior minds not content to take for granted things the rest of us are only too happy to. Johnstone picks five who represent the various terms of Einstein's equation: Michael Faraday (Stephen Robertson, "Inside I'm Dancing"), discovering the interrelation of electric and magnetic fields; Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (Julian Rhind-Tutt, "Green Wing"), demonstrating that mass is not lost when matter changes from one form to another; James Clerk Maxwell (Richard Henshall), mathematically connecting electromagnetism to the speed of light; Emilie du Chatelet (Helene de Fougeroles, "The Beach"), when not arguing with her lover, Voltaire, helping demonstrate that force increases exponentially with velocity. And post-Einstein, there is Lise Meitner (Emily Woof), working out how to split an atom, thank you very much.

At the same time, it wants to show us that scientists are people too, with sometimes dramatic, even glamorous lives, facing personal challenges beyond making the numbers fit. Du Chatelet and Meitner, two centuries apart, had to fight presuppositions about a woman's place and abilities in the sciences, and Meitner also had Nazi anti-Semitism to deal with. Einstein labored at a nothing job in the patent office even as he re-dreamed the cosmos. (Even so, this is a "young, energetic, dynamic, even a sexy Einstein.") Lavoisier, most challenged of all, had his head chopped off in the French Revolution.

As a science program, it does a good job in making E=mc2 and its precedents seem a little clearer -- I felt lights going on as I watched, though they did not necessarily stay lighted long -- and the re-creations of antique experiments and experimental machinery are fascinating and fun. But if "Einstein's Big Idea" succeeds as docu-, it does less well as a drama. No mass may ever be lost in our expanding universe, but much matter disappears when you try to fit 250 years of science into two hours.

Biographical information that might catch the flavor of reality on the page can become strangely artificial when you dress up actors in fancy costumes and hand them a string of declarative sentences. It's not easy to show Genius at Work, and "Einstein's Big Idea" follows the usual movie conventions -- a little brightening of the eyes, perhaps the hint of a smile, and Eureka! The problem is that human beings are rarely as elegant as Einstein's little formula; and they are possibly even harder to understand.


`Nova -- Einstein's Big Idea'

Where: KCET

When: 8 to 10 tonight

Ratings: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

Aidan McArdle...Albert Einstein

Shirley Henderson...Mileva Maric

Stephen Robertson...Michael Faraday

Julian Rhind-Tutt...Antoine-Laurent


Richard Henshall...James Clerk


Helene De Fougeroles...Emilie

du Chatelet

Emily Woof...Lise Meitner

Executive producers John Smithson. Senior executive producer for WGBH Paula S. Apsell. Writer-producer-director Gary Johnstone. Based on "E=mc2" by David Bodanis. Narrator John Lithgow.

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