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Entries in Albert Einstein (3)

Wednesday
Mar282012

Einstein’s Brain Arrives in London After Odd Journey

Ernst Haas/Ernst Haas/Getty Images(LONDON) -- Albert Einstein’s preserved brain has crossed the Atlantic for the first time. It’s a journey that one of the 20th century’s greatest minds never intended.

Before Einstein died 57 years ago, he wrote in his will that he wanted to be cremated, his ashes discarded secretly to avoid creating a shrine. But in the early hours of April 18, 1955, after the man who invented modern physics died of a burst aortic aneurysm, the pathologist on call that evening did something very different.

Dr. Thomas Harvey did not have permission to conduct an autopsy, nor did he have permission to keep the brain for himself. But that’s exactly what he did -- for four decades.  "Knowing that his brain was of interest to most everybody, I saved it and carefully preserved it,” Harvey told ABC News in 1996.

Harvey kept the most famous brain in the world after receiving a tentative -- and retroactive -- acceptance from Hans Albert, Einstein’s son, so long as the brain would be used for scientific purposes. But Harvey was no brain specialist and had no ability, at least on his own, to make sure that his prized possession was studied for science. And he clearly had more than science in mind.

He removed Einstein’s eyeballs and gave them to Einstein’s eye doctor, Henry Adams. To this day, they remain in a safe deposit box in New York City. As Brian Burrell wrote in his book, Postcards from the Brain Museum, “Why [Harvey] kept it will never be known for certain, but it can be inferred from comments made to various reporters that Harvey was inspired by Oskar Vogt’s study of Lenin’s brain, and he had the vague idea that cytoarchitectonics might shed some light on Einstein’s case [looking for physical proof for why Einstein was so smart]. A simpler and more appealing explanation is that [Harvey] got caught up in the moment and was transfixed in the presence of greatness. What he quickly discovered was that he had bitten off more than he could chew.”

Harvey had a technician cut the brain into more than 200 pieces. Many were saved properly, but others ended up in jars in his basement. Then when he moved to the Midwest, they sat in a cider box stashed under a beer cooler. Then, when he wanted to meet Einstein’s granddaughter, he put the jars in the back of a reporter’s Buick Skylark.

They traveled with him as he lost his medical license, moved to a half-dozen states, and finally returned to Princeton, where the story began -- only to give the brain to the pathologist who took the job he held that night in 1955. Again and again, Harvey promised to have the brain examined. But it never happened, at least not properly.

“Whenever [reporters] asked what was being done, Harvey would confidently proclaim that he was just one year away from publishing his results,” Burrell writes. “He would continue to give the same answer for the next forty years.”

On Thursday, two of the pieces that Harvey saved properly will go on display to the public in London’s Wellcome Collection museum, the first time they will have visited London. Brain matter is not much to look at, even Einstein’s. Kind of looks like a Rorschach test, to be honest. Black and brownish grey, it’s a blob that looks like a cross between someone’s head and neck and an oceanic plant.

But nevertheless, Dr. Marius Kwint, the guest curator of the “The Mind as Matter” exhibit, is confident of its value. He does not intend to sweep the controversial nature of how the brain arrived here under the rug.

In fact, that’s the whole point. At a basic level, the exhibit is designed, he said in an interview, to give people an idea of what the brain looks like as neuroscience is advancing rapidly. But the exhibit highlights the controversial nature of brain “science.”

For years, scientists classified brains in an attempt to prove stereotypes: whether social or based on class or race. If the brain belonged to a murderer, for example, scientists tried to see murderous patterns. Or they tried to prove that black brains were somehow physically inferior to white brains. The science helped reinforce “and create prejudice,” Kwint said.

And so Dr. Harvey’s claims to dedicate his life to examining Einstein’s brain -- and then failure to do so before he died in 2007 -- fit right in.

“You have to show problematic areas of history in order to cultivate proper respect in the present. You have to represent, show the evidence of historical problems in order to create a resolution of those problems,” Kwint says.

And although Kwint does not claim to want viewers to take a moralistic lesson from his exhibit, he suggests a larger point: we need to consider whether we humans are much, much more than the product of what the physical brain is capable of producing.

“The idea that you can detect human variation within a vary mercurial structure of the body sometimes involves dubious practices,” Kwint says, “and therefore we should be very skeptical about claims that the most important thing in human identity is the body and what it’s made of.”

And while Einstein would probably be furious that his brain ended up on a slide in a case in London, he would agree with Kwint’s point. He once said that a human being “experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as…a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.  This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.  Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Or, as a sign in his Princeton office proclaimed: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

Tuesday
Mar202012

New Albert Einstein Documents Look at Science and Love

Ernst Haas/Ernst Haas/Getty Images(JERUSALEM) -- Hebrew University is expanding and digitizing a catalog of Albert Einstein’s documents that now contains more than 80,000 of the scientist’s writings and private correspondence from over the years.

Some of the 2,000 documents that have been scanned total about 7,000 pages and are now published on the updated site -- alberteinstein.info -- for the public to see.  They include one of the original manuscripts for his famous formula E=mc², a postcard to his mother in her final days and a letter from his mistress 21 years his junior in which she addresses him as “Highly-regarded Professor!”

The update doubles the number of cataloged Einstein documents from 40,000 to 80,000.

“The renewed site is another expression of the Hebrew University’s intent to share with the entire cultural world this vast intellectual property which has been deposited into its hand by Einstein himself,” Professor Hanoch Gutfreund, the academic head of the Einstein archive, said in a statement.

When he died in 1955, Einstein left all his writings and the rights to his image to the university.

“Dear Mother, Today some happy news,” he writes to his sick mother Pauline in a letter from September 1919.  “The British expeditions have definitely verified the deflection of light by the sun.  Maja [Einstein's sister] writes me, to my dismay, that you’re not only in a lot of pain but that you have gloomy thoughts as well.  How much I would like to keep you company again so that you aren’t left to such nasty musing…”

The twice-married Einstein had several affairs and was known to have believed that “Marriage is the unsuccessful attempt to make something lasting out of an incident.”

During his second marriage to first cousin Elsa Lowenthal, he fell in love with Betty Neumann in 1923.  Fifteen years later, she would write him in Princeton, N.J., from Austria, asking for help immigrating to the United States as life got tougher for Jews in Europe before World War II.

“I lost my brother,” she explains to Einstein, who would help her get to the U.S.

The archives curator tell ABC News there are many more letters from Neumann that, along with thousands of other pages, will be scanned and published online during the course of the year.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

Friday
Sep232011

Is Albert Einstein Wrong? Neutrinos May Be Faster than Light

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(GENEVA) -- Albert Einstein's theory of relativity -- which has proved remarkably durable since he first proposed it in 1905 -- said that the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) had to be something of a cosmic speed limit.

But now a team of scientists at CERN, the giant particle accelerator physicists use in the Alps on the French-Swiss border, say they have conducted an experiment in which neutrinos -- subatomic particles with no electric charge -- traveled slightly faster than photons, the particles that make up light beams.

If they’re right, it’s a big deal in the physics world -- but that’s a big if.

“The feeling that most people have is this can’t be right, this can’t be real,” said James Gillies, a spokesman for CERN.

Physicists will now be poring over the report of the experiment, many of them saying they’re fascinated by the findings, but also inclined to be skeptical.

“We’d be thrilled if it’s right because we love something that shakes the foundation of what we believe,” said Columbia University physicist Brian Greene.  “That’s what we live for.”

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio







ABC News Radio