By Claudia Kalb
The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia houses an array of singular medical specimens. On the lower level the fused livers of 19th-century conjoined twins Chang and Eng float in a glass vessel. Nearby, visitors can gawk at hands swollen with gout, the bladder stones of Chief Justice John Marshall, the cancerous tumor extracted from President Grover Cleveland’s jaw, and a thighbone from a Civil War soldier with the wounding bullet still in place. But there’s one exhibit near the entrance that elicits unmatchable awe. Look closely at the display, and you can see smudge marks left by museumgoers pressing their foreheads against the glass.
The object that fascinates them is a small wooden box containing 46 microscope slides, each displaying a slice of Albert Einstein’s brain. A magnifying glass positioned over one of the slides reveals a piece of tissue about the size of a stamp, its graceful branches and curves resembling an aerial view of an estuary. These remnants of brain tissue are mesmerizing even though—or perhaps because—they reveal little about the physicist’s vaunted powers of cognition. Other displays in the museum show disease and disfigurement—the results of something gone wrong. Einstein’s brain represents potential, the ability of one exceptional mind, one genius, to catapult ahead of everyone else. “He saw differently from the rest of us,” says visitor Karen O’Hair as she peers at the tea-colored sample. “And he could extend beyond that to what he couldn’t see, which is absolutely amazing.”
Throughout history rare individuals have stood out for their meteoric contributions to a field. Lady Murasaki for her literary inventiveness. Michelangelo for his masterful touch. Marie Curie for her scientific acuity. “The genius,” wrote German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, “lights on his age like a comet into the paths of the planets.” Consider Einstein’s impact on physics. With no tools at his disposal other than the force of his own thoughts, he predicted in his general theory of relativity that massive accelerating objects—like black holes orbiting each other—would create ripples in the fabric of space-time. It took one hundred years, enormous computational power, and massively sophisticated technology to definitively prove him right, with the physical detection of such gravitational waves less than two years ago.
Einstein revolutionized our understanding of the very laws of the universe. But our understanding of how a mind like his works remains stubbornly earthbound. What set his brainpower, his thought processes, apart from those of his merely brilliant peers? What makes a genius?
Picture: This a copy of a painting by Sir Godfrey Kneller(1689). This copy was painted by Barrington Bramley. (http://www.newton.cam.ac.uk/art/portrait.html) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons