Genius. The word itself inspires awe and fascination. It’s considered unattainable for most people. There’s the common idea that genius is something a person is born with while the rest of us must be content to journey through life with ordinary brains, able to grasp only the simplest of concepts.
Then again, it takes a genius to know one, right? From theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking’s viewpoint, everyone has the potential to be exceptionally intelligent.
That’s the central concept of Hawking’s six-episode series, “Genius,” premiering with back-to-back episodes at 9 p.m. Wednesday on PBS member stations, and airing over three weeks on consecutive Wednesdays through June 1. In “Genius,” Hawking espouses the belief that, in the same way that history’s greatest minds were able to concoct illuminating theories about how the universe works by observing the working life around them, everyday people can answer some of the biggest questions about the universe without consulting people like him.
And these are truly gigantic questions that are merely touched upon over the course of each hour. The series opens with two of the most common ones: “Can We Time Travel?” and “Are We Alone?” Yes, the good old “Back to the Future” conundrum, followed by the Trekker’s dream. Tempting as it may be to assume we know the answers to all of these scenarios, it’s the exploration of the questions that makes each episode of “Genius” worth watching.
Besides, Hawking’s ultimate answers may surprise you.
It bears mentioning that the people featured in each “Genius” episode aren’t a bunch of random folks yanked off the street. Though apparently average, each clearly has an inquisitive mind and at least some understanding of basic theoretical concepts such as spacetime, and how solar systems operate. More importantly, it’s clear that they have a desire to understand how the principles they’re exploring can be practically applied to understanding the workings of the universe.
Then again, it certainly helps that Hawking is a kindly host providing guidance for the participants as they embark on his field experiments, which include tasks such as figuring out how to find a party in Manhattan just by using three numbers. In another scene, they grapple with whether it’s possible to travel into the past by navigating a small course while driving — what else? — a DeLorean. And in the second episode, a different group calculates how many stars are in our galaxy by doing as Carl Sagan once did: Counting grains of sand.
Future episodes ask even bigger questions such as “Why Are We Here?” “Where Did the Universe Come From?” “What Are We?” and “Where Are We?”
“Genius” is a refreshing idea for a television series, if not all altogether original. With networks such as Discovery and National Geographic Channel (which is airing the series internationally, thanks to National Geographic’s co-production of the series) presenting science-themed content on a regular basis, there’s no shortage of information on television that explores these concepts in some fashion.
Brainier viewers, or even Average Janes who have seen enough episodes of “Mythbusters” to deduce where Hawking is headed with each task he assigns to his participants, may get less out of it than, say, families watching it together.
However, most shows make learning about the universe’s mysteries as passive as watching a sitcom: An episode fascinates us with images, the narrator explains what we’re seeing, the audience absorbs. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s recent, beautiful reboot of “Cosmos” is a terrific example of this; it brought the viewer a basic sense of understanding about the universe and the history of scientific discovery, but it’s a safe bet that most viewers were dazzled by its animation as opposed to being able to recall the information illustrated by that imagery.
“Genius” takes the extra step of encouraging participatory viewing; as the teams of three wrestle with puzzles, or consider objects and scenarios that stimulate their creative problem-solving abilities, the audience’s cognitive faculties spark and crackle right along with them.
Indeed, at several points in each episode, Hawking invites viewers to figure out the lesson of each field experiment before his participants can, which is actually quite fun. At one point I found myself yelling at the screen like “Breaking Bad’s” Jesse Pinkman, “Hey…it’s magnets! It’s clearly magnets!” Turns out I was right. Then again, that was the beginning of the episode. By the end, I was just as baffled and awestruck as the rest of them.
Having watched three episodes of the series, I still would not call myself a genius, in spite of Hawking’s proposal. But I’m willing to keep striving toward that goal, and perhaps that’s enough.