The equation is famous, known even to math- and physics-phobes. But 100 years after Albert Einstein stated that energy equals mass times the speed of light squared, explaining what that really means can be difficult. A new PBS program attempts to do so by dramatizing Einstein's life, intercut with commentary from experts, to illustrate how E=mc2 became part of everyday language and the key to technological innovations.
"Einstein's Big Idea" stars Irish actor Aidan McArdle, whose portrayal shows the intensity of a young man trapped in a dead-end job but driven by an interest in physics. The program is a tribute to the 100th anniversary of several of Einstein's breakthroughs, one of which was the equation he published on Sept. 27, 1905.
"Einstein was a really interesting guy. He wasn't some dutiful little chap who went through the academic system and did everything proper," said Gary Johnstone, who wrote, directed and produced the film. "He had an enormous ego -- any lesser ego would have given up. He publishes this stuff and nobody pays attention for four years, but he is possessed -- and that's what makes him hell to be with as a human."
Narrated by actor John Lithgow, the film follows the back story behind the elements of E=mc2: energy, mass and the speed of light squared (the "c" stands for celeritas, the Latin word for swiftness). Each element unfolds via scenes from the lives of those whose work influenced Einstein, including Michael Faraday (Stephen Robertson), a 19th-century scientist who studied electricity and magnetism, and Emilie du Chatelet (Helene de Fougerolles), a wealthy mathematical genius who was the lover of the French philosopher Voltaire in the 1700s.
They and others, including Einstein's first wife -- scientist Mileva Maric (Shirley Henderson) -- and Lisa Meitner (Emily Woof), whose work in the 20th century led to the development of the atom bomb, are depicted as classic dramatic characters. Johnstone found it a creative challenge to flesh out individual vignettes while also advancing the story line about theoretical physics.
"If you're writing about one real person in history, you can soak up that person as a human, collect all the things you can gloss over in a documentary," Johnstone said. "But to balance five or six of them, there isn't time to do justice to each character. And if you get too heavy on the science, you'll lose the audience."
Lithgow's narration "gives it a classic storyteller's view," Johnstone said. "He makes it a bit more jaunty, as if he relishes the knowledge he's imparting."
Visually, "Einstein's Big Idea" offers the feel of a theatrical film, with dramatic exteriors of both the countryside and period city streets. Filmed over six weeks in England, France and Switzerland, the program includes a scene in the attic theater of the actual chateau shared by du Chatelet and Voltaire. The eight-foot stage is the oldest existing theater in France, Johnstone said.
Author David Bodanis, whose book "E=mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation" is the basis for the film, called du Chatelet a "Bridget Jones with a master's IQ."
"She would write in her journals about binge eating, yet she was brilliant, protected by wealth," he said. "She couldn't go to the academy of science, but that helped her creativity."
Bodanis was apprehensive about the film, in which he appears along with expert scientists, including James Gates of the University of Maryland.
"Usually when there's drama and science combined, the drama feels so hokey, but here, they work well together," he said.
The program captures "the pride and humor and poignancy in Einstein," he said. "And seeing Lisa Meitner and Emilie [du Chatelet], what they went through, their emotions, their determination -- it humanizes things."
Bodanis said he wrote the book "for the English majors of the world."
"This way at least everybody can get it," he said. "The details are complex, but the core idea isn't that hard. There are so many boring books about Einstein.
"But this is a guy, on his honeymoon, who says to his bride, 'Would you like to watch a piece of metal rust?' Einstein was always thinking really hard about something we never notice," Bodanis said.
Johnstone hopes a wide viewership will find the film's topic intriguing. "It's difficult to make science programs that appeal to a wider audience," he said. "Typically, you'd think scientists want more science and the general audience wants more entertainment."
Johnstone said scientists at preview screenings of the film were enthusiastic. "They were saying, 'This is cool; we get to be heroes.' Usually it's the cops and firemen in movies who are heroes, and suddenly, it's the physicists who are the heroes."
NOVA: Einstein's big idea
Tuesday at 8 p.m. on PBS