Thursday, April 22, 2010

Einstein's Missing Brain

Albert Einstein

Few scientists in history have had as much effect on how humanity views its place in the universe as physicist Albert Einstein, born on the 14th of March 1879 in Ulm, Germany, son of a small electrochemical factory owner. Genius revealed itself at an early age and reaching adulthood he taught mathematics and advanced physics in Germany before moving to Switzerland where he supported himself as a technical assistant in the Swiss Patent Office in Bern, it was while a patent clerk that his true brilliance revealed itself. Continuing formal studies in theoretical physics on a part time basis and private experimentation in his spare time it all came together in 1905 when he published his thesis 'A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions' in a German journal, it grabbed worldwide attention and earned him a Ph.D. from the University of Zurich. In the same year he published four other revolutionary papers, however his most important was the 'Theory of Relativity' which changed physics forever. It was also highly controversial as few of his peers even understood it and those who could were frightened as it overturned conventional Newtonian concepts of time and space being fixed laws, Einstein revealing everything is relative, summed up in the equation: E=mc² - energy equals mass times the speed of light squared - which won him the Nobel Prize in physics in 1921.

During the 1930's he moved to the United States as war clouds gathered over Europe and the Nazi's threatened his life and those of other Jewish academics such as Sigmund Freud, he was soon offered a professorship at Princeton University in New Jersey where he would spend the rest of his life teaching and studying. He urged President Roosevelt to develop nuclear weapons fearing the Nazi's would acquire them and was horrified by its use on Japan in 1945, spending his post war life lobbying succeeding presidents to ban atomic weapons fearing they would bring about the end of the world. He was more then a scientist, he was an international celebrity, feted by all segments of society and universally respected as a grandfather figure.

He died on the 18th of April 1955 at age 76, ever a humble man he left instructions that his body be cremated and ashes scattered over an undisclosed portion of the Hudson River, he wanted no grave stone or monument erected. However appreciating the magnitude of his gifts he authorized scientific examination of his brain be made, so soon after his death Princeton Hospital pathologist Dr. Thomas Harvey removed his brain and it inexplicably faded from memory.

23 years later journalist Steven Levy of the 'New Jersey Monthly' was instructed by his editor to research and write an article on what became of Einstein's brain, having read a biography on the physicist which made reference to his wish it should be examined after death. He contacted Princeton University and the executors of the Einstein estate but neither had any idea of what had become of it, Princeton could not find the relic on their databases and a check of scientific literature revealed no learned paper had been published detailing its examination. Levy realized the only way to ascertain what fate had befallen it was to track down the man who removed it from Einstein's skull, he discovered Dr. Harvey had retired years earlier and never stayed long at the same place, but with persistence he tracked him down to Wichita, Kansas. When Levy knocked on his door he was caught off guard, refused to discuss the brain but after a while told him the brain was in his possession. Inviting Levy into his house he led him to his office, pulled out a cardboard box which housed two Tupperware ice-box lettuce crispers, within which was Einstein's sectioned brain, cut into 240 pieces and floating in restringents.

Einstein's  BrainWhen Levy published his article on the discovery of Einstein's brain it was one of the biggest news stories of 1978, the international media swarmed around Harvey's modest home wanting to interview him and photograph the relics, comedians had a field day and he was the butt of jokes from coast to coast. However the Einstein family was far from happy, they were outraged Dr. Harvey had souvenired the brain from Princeton University. The university too was shocked by it, politely stopping short of calling it theft. The media were less polite branding him a ghoulish thief, Dr. Harvey countered, "I kept it to find out, if possible, what was the source of his intelligence, of his genius". However his motives for illegally removing the item from Princeton University are questionable, appear more emotionally based then scientifically motivated, during the 23 years he had it in his possession he never published a papers on it, never paid it any legitimate scientific attention, a fact revealed in statements he made to Steven Levy; claiming there was nothing to indicate the physical nature of the brain was anything special, an erroneous statement which would soon be dispelled.

Neurologists across the United States and indeed the world registered interest in examining the brain themselves, concerned by potential if not inevitable legal action by the Einstein estate and/or the legal custodians of the brain, Princeton University, Dr. Harvey began dipping into the Tupperware and scooping out portions of the brains for scientific examination. Portions were sent to neurologists Drs. Marian Diamond, UC Berkeley - Arnold Scheibel, University of Alabama and Sandra Witelson, McMaster University who calculated Einstein's brain weighed 1.230 grams which is less than the 1.400 grams of the average adult male. It had fewer neurons to glial cells than an average brain, there were more glial cells for every neuron in Einstein’s brain. The scientists concluded that the greater number of glial cells per neuron indicated the neurons had an increased metabolic need, they needed and used more energy, as a result Einstein had better thinking abilities and conceptual skills. They also reported that the thickness of his cerebral cortex was thinner than the average, however the density of neurons was greater, in other words Einstein was able to pack more neurons in a given area of cortex. His brain also had an unusual pattern of grooves called sulci on the right and left parietal lobes, this is thought to be important for mathematical abilities and spatial reasoning. Einstein's brain had a much shorter lateral sulcus that was partially missing. His brain was also 15% wider than the average, they conclude these unique neurological characteristics may have allowed better connections between neurons important for math and spatial reasoning.

It is very fortunate that Steven Levy was delegated the task of locating the brain and writing an article on it otherwise it would probably have been lost when the eccentric Dr. Harvey died, no one knew the bachelor possessed the relic and the Tupperware receptacles were unlabeled. Today the vast majority of the brain has been handed over to various educational institutions, in 1996 Dr. Harvey presented most of the remaining pieces to Dr. Elliot Krauss, chief pathologist at Princeton University where they're stored with great pride. The value of the brain to science is ongoing, although the physical examination has be comprehensively completed the material has yet to be put through DNA analysis to work out the genetic differences between Einstein and us mere mortals. Dr. Krause telling journalists, "its a fairly significant responsibility having the brain because I understand why we are keeping it. We are keeping it, I think, because in the future we might have the technology to do a gene analysis and see what is in his genes that made him so much smarter than the average man. We just plain don't have the knowledge now". Those who knew Albert Einstein believe he would have been amused by the afterlife sojourn his brain went on and thrilled by the contribution he has made to neurology and has yet to make to genetics, proving a scientists work is never done.

Close up of  Einstein's Brain
close up of Einstein's Brain

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