What happens after you die?
For Albert Einstein, the answer to this question is an adventure involving eyeballs in a secret vault, characters of dubious moral quality, and a trail littered with destroyed careers.
His remains, preserved against his explicit wishes, are in some ways like the Holy Grail for scientists — despite our usual rationality, part of us wants to experience part of him, even if just a specter of his persona. His iconic form, of a saint in white lab coat robes with a halo of disheveled white hair, has for generations defined the image of a scientist.
Like a shadow on toast, we can see him now via a crude, two-dimensional likeness from beyond the dead.
Appropriately enough, in a journal called Brain.
In a recent issue, paleoneurologist Dean Falk and colleagues published a special paper releasing previously unpublished photographs of Einstein’s brain shortly after autopsy. Viewing them as a neuroscientist, while grappling with the knowledge that they were obtained through deception and theft, is like continuing to watch the horror movie because you just can’t stop.
What they find is intriguing — for example, the motor cortex for the left hand is enlarged (possibly because he was a right-handed violinist), the precentral superior sulcus is continuous with the precentral inferior sulcus (which is uncommon), and there is an unusual pattern of gyri in the frontal lobe.
Unfortunately, interpretations from these findings are limited, because this study has a sample size of one, which makes determining the significance of any of these anomalies nigh impossible. His brain was compared to set of 48 European brains, but it was not compared to a set of brains from appropriately age-matched men (Einstein was 76 years old), or from men who had exceptional expertise or achievements.
This fundamental flaw makes studies like these an easy target for criticism. No study is perfect, and scientists are opinionated by nature. Two or three reviewers read your papers now, and they are judgmental enough. Thousands of people around the world, each with their own presumptions of how the study should be done, will be reading this paper. Only the truly stoic can survive this backlash — indeed, authors of the previous handful of papers on Einstein’s brain have receded from the limelight instead of basking in it.
Therefore, instead of a discovery that alters our view of what contributes to genius, we are left with yellowed photographs. These images, taken upon Einstein’s death in 1955, remind us that even he was human. Just like the rest of us, with greying hair we don’t have time to comb, and a white lab coat sprinkled with a mysteriously growing colony of stains.
In the wake of this paper, I contemplate what Einstein left behind. A radical shift in how we perceive the universe, oh yes, but also body parts saved in jars, and wedges of brain sandwiched between thin slices of glass and plastic, saved in secret vaults. He wished that these latter bits would not remain, so that he would not be venerated. Like a true scientist, like a real saint, it was his ideas and teachings that he wanted to survive him. Evidence of his physical presence is not for us to possess.
Read the full article here:
Falk, D., Falk, D., Lepore, F. E., & Noe, A. (2013). The cerebral cortex of Albert Einstein: a description and preliminary analysis of unpublished photographs. Brain, 136(4), 1304–1327.