WEIRD SCIENCE
   



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THE MYSTERY OF EINSTEIN'S BRAIN

On April 18, 1955, Albert Einstein died, 76 years old. He was hugely popular and widely identified with the figure of scientific genius.

Although he had requested that his body be cremated, he had accepted that his brain be saved and studied for research. Dr. Thomas S. Harvey, the pathologist at Princeton at the time of Einstein's death, removed Einstein's brain and fixed it rapidly in formaldehyde to preserve the nerve cells before they disintegrated.

What happened to the brain for years after this is one of the less known cases of weird science.

In the mid 1970s, the reporter Steven Levy set out to find Einstein's brain. Mr. Levy published his story in 1978. He discovered that Einstein's brain was still with Dr. Harvey who was now in Wichita, Kansas. The brain was in two mason jars in a cardboard box that was marked with the words "Costa Cider". Most of the brain, except for the cerebellum and parts of the cerebral cortex, had been sliced.

Since then, the morphological differences of Einstein's brain with 'normal' brains have been studied in at least 3 published articles, with unclear results.

One paper, titled "On the Brain of a Scientist: Albert Einstein" was published in 1985 in the journal Experimental Neurology (vol. 88, pages 198-204, 1985) and written by Marian C. Diamond, Arnold B. Scheibel, Greer M. Murphy and Thomas Harvey. These scientists counted the number of neurons (nerve cells) and glial cells in four areas of Einstein's brain, and the ratios of neurons to glial cells in Einstein's brain were compared to those from the brains of 11 men who died at the average age of 64. Only in one of the fours areas were the differences statically significant, but the composition of the control group could have affected the results.

A second paper describing Einstein's brain was published in 1996. Einstein's brain weighed only 1,230 grams, which is far less than the average adult male brain (about 1,400 grams). The authors also reported that the thickness of Einstein's cerebral cortex (area 9) was thinner than that of five control brains. However, the density of neurons in Einstein's brain was greater.

Finally a recent study concerning Einstein's brain was published in the British medical journal The Lancet (vol. 353, pages 2149-2153) on June 19, 1999. In this paper, the external surface characteristics of Einstein's brain were compared to those from the brains of 35 men (average age, 57 years old). Unlike the brain of these 35 men, Einstein's brain had an unusual pattern of grooves on both right and left parietal lobes. This particular area of the parietal lobe is thought to be important for mathematical abilities and spatial reasoning. Einstein's brain had a much shorter lateral groove that was partially missing. His brain was also 15% wider than the other brains.
The researchers think that these unique brain characteristics may have allowed better connections between neurons important for math and spatial reasoning.


In fact, none of the above studies is likely to provide an explanation of the exceptional skills of Albert Einstein. They rather say something about our perception of genius as something 'hardwired' in the brain connections rather than in the history of a person, so much that one expects to find actual physical differences in the brain of what we consider a 'genius'.

Notice that the notion of genius itself is highly relative. For example, also the brain of Lenin was removed and studied by scientists. Lenin was the leader of the Russian revolution in 1917. After his death in 1924, his brain was removed and the Soviet government commissioned the german neuroscientist Oskar Vogt to study it. Vogt spent two and a half years preparing and studying Lenin's brain. He finally published a paper on the brain in 1929 where he reported that some neurons in a certain area of the cerebral cortex of Lenin's brain were very numerous and large. Once more, it is not clear if the relevance of this study was scientific or rather political. BOOKS: Magic Trees of the Mind. Marian C. Diamond, Ph.D.

Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain
by Michael Paterniti

Driving Mr. Albert chronicles the adventures of an unlikely threesome--a freelance writer, an elderly pathologist, and Albert Einstein's brain--on a cross-country expedition intended to set the story of this... Read more

 

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Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain

by Michael Paterniti

Driving Mr. Albert chronicles the adventures of an unlikely threesome--a freelance writer, an elderly pathologist, and Albert Einstein's brain--on a cross-country expedition intended to set the story of this...
Read more