'Einstein's Big Idea': Atoms and Eves

Aidan McArdle as the young genius and Shirley Henderson as his first wife, Mileva Maric, in
Aidan McArdle as the young genius and Shirley Henderson as his first wife, Mileva Maric, in "Einstein's Big Idea." (By Judy Goldhill)
By Stephen Reiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 11, 2005

It turns out that the casting directors at the "CSI" franchise are right: Science is a babe magnet.

That must be the explanation for all the hot young scientists and their lusty lovers populating "Einstein's Big Idea," airing at 8 tonight on PBS. This latest installment in the "Nova" series of science documentaries has to be accurate, because those do-gooders in educational television wouldn't think of appealing to our baser instincts, would they?

Here's 18th-century French scientist Antoine Lavoisier and his fetching young bride discussing the ins and outs of oxidation as they wend their way to the bedchamber through his laboratory.

Here's Emilie du Chatelet, the brilliant daughter of a French courtier, who could disprove Isaac Newton on the mathematics of motion and look great doing it. (Now I know what rocker Thomas Dolby meant with his 1983 hit "She Blinded Me With Science.")

And here's the young Albert Einstein rousing his negligee-clad wife with the speedy bowing of his violin, and suggestively asking that she "Come with me and . . . think about the electromagnetic theory of light."

"How you enchant a lady," she responds. (What an operator!)

When you get past the heavy breathing, this two-hour show traces the origins and impact of the most famous equation in science -- E = mc{+2} -- in a fast-paced and entertaining fashion. This year marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most productive and pathbreaking periods in science. For it was in 1905 that Einstein, an obscure young patent clerk, had a "miracle year," publishing five papers on atomic structure, the nature of light and the relationship between energy and matter. The work was so radical and poorly understood that it took four years and the intervention of physicist Max Planck before Einstein got his first faculty position.

The show breaks down each part of the equation and demonstrates how Einstein's insights built on the work of many scientists who came before him. In each case, heaping spoonfuls of sugar help the mathematics and physics go down. The scientists' stories are told in the context of their ambitions, loves and disappointments. And the producers have taken the trouble and expense to get quality actors and put them in believable period settings and costumes. For instance, Irish actor Aidan McArdle, who portrays Einstein, succeeds in the Herculean task of persuading the audience to follow his thinking on the nature of light and then to care about this self-centered, obnoxious cad when he callously divorces his wife (the impressive Shirley Henderson, whose credits include "Bridget Jones's Diary" and "Trainspotting").

After a brief opening tease in which Einstein's wife offers to check his mathematics (wink, wink), the story begins in the London of 1812, with Michael Faraday, a bookbinder's apprentice, doing a pratfall into a puddle. Science at the time was a gentleman's pursuit and the working-class Faraday needed persistence, luck and brilliance to get into a laboratory full time. Driven by his religious faith to understand God's works, Faraday did pioneering experimental work on electricity and its relationship to magnetism.

Other characters include Lavoisier, who demonstrated that mass is never lost, even as it changes states from solid to liquid to gas (his beheading during the French Revolution keeps the plot moving); James Clark Maxwell, who had the mathematical chops to prove that light is a form of electromagnetism; and the lovely du Chatelet, who demonstrated the importance of squaring (multiplying a number by itself) in determining the energy of a moving object. That may sound like a snoozefest, but her affair with Voltaire does spice up the presentation.

The history closes with the wrenching story of Lise Meitner, an Austrian Jew who became the first woman in Germany to have the title of professor. Despite her important work on radioactivity, she was forced by the Nazis to leave her university and fled the country. Taking a walk through the snow with her nephew, also a physicist, in 1938, she had the insight that the uranium atom could be split, releasing huge amounts of energy. That discovery eventually led to the Manhattan Project -- in which she refused to participate -- and the creation of the atomic bomb.

It's a fitting end, proving again that whether it's the French Revolution, World War II or the more quotidian concerns of careers and loves, the pursuit of science cannot be divorced from the world around it.

Einstein's Big Idea (two hours) airs tonight at 8 on Channel 22 and 26.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company