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Published: Friday, 11/14/2008

2-hour documentary takes a look at Einstein

BY MIKE KELLY
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

Here's a bit of hopeful news for the disappointed parents of any academic underachievers or young slackers out there:

Albert Einstein, probably the best-known genius in history, was considered a goof-off when he was a student at the Polytechnic Academy in Zurich at the turn of the 20th century. There was no denying that young Albert was intelligent, but he chafed at the regimented style of his classes, and he barely managed to graduate.

Even when he did, he couldn't find a job as a physicist or mathematician, and he began to think of himself as a loser. He even considered becoming an insurance salesman before finally landing a position as a clerk in the Swiss patent office in Bern.

These are among the random, little-known facts about the iconic German-American brainiac that are sprinkled throughout a two-hour documentary that premieres Monday night on History. Einstein, which airs at 9 p.m., focuses mainly on the scientist's 15-year struggle to prove the most radical of his theories, those that would blast holes in Sir Isaac Newton's 200-year-old explanations of space and time, and lay the groundwork for the modern study of physics.

While the popular image of Einstein is that of a wild-haired, impish old man, he actually completed most of his notable work while he was in his early to mid-20s. While working in the patent office, he had plenty of time to study theoretical physics and submit scientific papers to various universities and publications.

In a single year, 1905 - which has come to be called his "Miracle Year" - Einstein published a number of breakthrough papers that outlined some of his theories. Together they had a profound effect on the scientific community and would ultimately elevate their author to the A-list of the world's physicists.

Some of Einstein's abstract ideas involved atoms, molecules, time, space, motion, and gravity, and while such topics were well over the heads of most people, one was Einstein's famous Theory of Special Relativity, which could be expressed with the now-familiar equation E=MC2.

Over the next decade, Einstein continued his efforts to explain the workings of the universe, and astronomers from around the world raced to verify his theories by photographing solar eclipses, hoping to capture the "ripples" in space and time that Einstein had predicted they would discover.

The documentary is full of talking heads - physicists, astronomers, science historians, and Einstein scholars - who give their perspectives and insights into their subject. But what most nonacademicians are likely to find interesting are the occasional nuggets of Einstein trivia.

For example, there's every indication that Einstein's first wife, Mileva Maric - a talented physicist in her own right - contributed to her famous husband's discoveries but never received proper credit. Einstein belittled his wife's abilities, psychologically abused her, and openly cheated on her.

When he finally asked for a divorce in 1919 - Einstein would later marry his cousin, Elsa - Mileva agreed to the break-up only after Einstein promised her a big payday when he won a Nobel Prize. A bit on the arrogant side by then, he was certain he'd win one, but didn't know when.

He did receive a Nobel in 1921. Oddly, it wasn't for his famous theories of relativity, but for his earlier work on something called the "photoelectric effect," which would eventually lead to the development of such devices as remote controls and digital cameras. The prize was worth about $28,000 then, which is comparable to more than $310,000 in today's dollars.

While interesting as far as it goes, the documentary falls short of presenting a complete picture of Einstein. Missing are large chunks of his later life, when he struggled as a pacifist in World War I Germany, endured attacks from anti-Semitic physicists, was offered the presidency of Israel, and influenced America's Franklin D. Roosevelt in his decision to pursue development of the atomic bomb.

Even so, it provides a rare glimpse into the life of a unique thinker whose sheer brain power made possible so much of what we take for granted today, from cell phones to computers. As MSNBC put it on the 100th anniversary of Einstein's Miracle Year in 2005, this is really Albert's world, and the rest of us just happen to live in it.



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