Walnut High School

Q&A with theoretical physicist Clifford Johnson about the creation of ‘Genius’

What makes a “genius?” National Geographic’s latest TV show, “Genius,” developed by Noah Pink and Kenneth Biller, focuses on the life of theoretical physicist Albert Einstein. It is based on the 2007 book “Einstein, His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson. It follows both his life both as a struggling young adult scientist and as an older, respected mind for the development of the theory of relativity.

In an interview with USC professor and theoretical physicist Clifford Johnson, who helped advise the show, we discuss Einstein’s life and what really defines a person as a genius.

cliffordjohnson pzz zz web1 Q&A with theoretical physicist Clifford Johnson about the creation of Genius

Professor Clifford Johnson, profile credit to University of Southern California


JH: How did you help oversee the show “Genius”?

CJ: I was called to help out with many aspects of the show because you have a ten-hour series that is focused on the life of a scientist. We don’t turn off the science; it is part of our lives. They really needed help to make sure the portrait they give of the man is really accurately reflecting how he thinks about science and how he involves science in how he faces the world. Many of the people he would interact with are scientists as well, so I am trying to get right just how those people interact with each other and give a sense of the scientific landscape at the time.

JH: Was Einstein’s work as groundbreaking and controversial as it seemed in the show? How has it changed the scientific world?

CJ: [His work] was definitely very groundbreaking. He represents a cluster of scientists around the time who were beginning to not just introduce new ideas that were striking but also the means by which they arrived to those ideas. He is really famous, for example, of the “thought experiment” to quite a remarkable level where you can challenge your ideas or hypothesis about how a piece of physics might work by interrogating the work in an internal world. You try and challenge the idea by testing it to destruction in your mind. The “thought experiment” became one of his main tools because he was exploring ideas that really could not be directly tested immediately in that time. That is part of the toolbox of any theoretical physicist, perhaps more so than when he did his work.

JH: As a professor at USC, how does the academic environment encourage scientists to explore and discover breakthroughs in the scientific community?

CJ: USC strives to provide the right conditions to have freedom to explore ideas. You also need freedom to fail. It is one of the most important things in any science endeavor. One of the things I think the show will give hints of is not this cliché of what a genius is, which is some magically talented individual that can just do stuff; that is a myth. A genius comes from being able to ask the right questions, being persistent, and working hard on making a skill set that can help you address those questions. A university environment like USC tries to provide the means in which you can do those things. There is a great deal of academic freedom as well as freedom to fail at those ideas. Another thing Einstein uses a lot are his colleagues, by means in which you can interact with other people and exchange ideas. The other big myth about Einstein is he did a lot of his work in isolation and shocked the world with this new brilliant way of thinking. That’s not true at all. He was constantly in contact with members of the scientific community and learning from others around him. A good academic environment tries to provide that as well, so you can really have a board for creative ideas.

JH: What is your advice for high schoolers to challenge our abilities and make new discoveries?

CJ: Be curious. Be persistent. That is the main thing in any of this. By honing your abilities through practice and hard work, you begin to sharpen the kinds of questions you ask. One of the great things I was concerned with was asking sharp questions that got to the heart of the matter. Even if [Einstein] was able to do that, he wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if he also wasn’t persistent and hardworking at finding the answer to the question, using whatever means he can to find techniques by which he can answer the question. He would take years because he was very single-minded about trying to figure out what was going on. Those things are key. Keep moving forward. It takes years, practice, and hard work. All of that is what goes into making a genius, not just some magical ability that you’re born with.

JH: As a scientist can you describe the humility and awe you feel every time you discover something new or something you haven’t known before?

CJ: It’s an amazing process. First and foremost, it is a privilege to be able to work in a field that allows me to do this again and again: to be able to come up with ideas and find means in which I can test them and then hopefully get a result. That’s a great situation to be in and it’s a great kind of work and life to be in. The process itself is exhilarating. It’s like nothing else I can describe. You dream up a thing and you find out it’s real and out there in the world. That never gets old, making that connection between what’s going on in your head and what’s out there in the real world. It all goes back to one of the great mysteries about the world: the fact that it is even understandable and we can sit and make sense of it. There’s no reason that needed to be true. Scientists are some of the people who make it their living to sit and think about the world and understand it. That’s a privilege to be able to do that. It’s a gift that keeps on giving. It never gets old. Nature is constantly full of challenges and surprises.

JH: The show is heavily based on real events, so what do you hope high schoolers take away from this?

CJ: Scientists, no matter how famous or legendary they become, they’re real people with real concerns. That affects how they do their science and who they are as scientists. This show does a great job of showing you everything. It’s important for high schoolers to be aware that once you strip aside the myth and the legend, there’s a real person in there. That person started somewhere and to some extent, that person is just like how [high schoolers] are. That means, as a person in high school, you have the potential to become as great a contributor to society as Einstein or anybody else. You have to start somewhere. You hone that skillset and you gradually get better and better at what you’re doing.

You’re going to have stuff getting in your way and the whole business by which you navigate all of those obstacles ends up being in your work. This also enriches it and makes it very individual. The thing that is truly individual about a person’s science is how they do their particular contribution and how they uncover that particular thing. Someone else would have discovered it eventually, but they wouldn’t have done it in quite that way. That’s the unique thing about an individual contribution to science. It all comes because we’re human beings doing these extraordinary things. The human element is something that the show does a really great job of showing.

“Genius” premiered on April 25 and will air each week at 9 p.m. on Tuesday.

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