Albert Einstein was a genius, but he wasn’t the only one – why has his name come to mean something superhuman?
by Matthew Francis 1,500 words
Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955) at home in Princeton, New Jersey, 1944.
Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images
Before he died, Albert Einstein requested that his whole body be cremated as soon as possible after death, and his ashes scattered in an undisclosed location. He didn’t want his mortal remains to be turned into a shrine, but his request was only partially heeded. Einstein’s closest friend, the economist Otto Nathan, took possession of his ashes, but not before Thomas Harvey, the pathologist who performed the autopsy, removed his brain. Family and friends were aghast, but Harvey convinced Einstein’s son Hans Albert to give his reluctant permission after the fact. The eccentric doctor kept the brain in a glass jar of formalin inside a cider box under a cooler, until 1998, when he returned it to Princeton Hospital, and from time to time, he would send little chunks of it to interested scientists.
Most of us will never be victims of brain-theft and ash hoarding, but Einstein’s status as the archetypical genius of modern times singled him out for special treatment. An ordinary person can live and die privately, but a genius – and his grey matter – belongs to the world. Even in his lifetime, which coincided with the first great flowering of mass media, Einstein was a celebrity, as famous for his wit and white shock of hair as he was for his science. Indeed, his life seems to have been timed perfectly to take advantage of the proliferations of newspapers and radio shows, whose reports often framed Einstein’s theories as being incomprehensible to anyone but the genius himself.
There’s no doubt that Einstein’s contributions to science were revolutionary. Before he came along, cosmology was a part of philosophy but, thanks to him, it’s become a branch of science, tasked with no less than a mathematical history and evolution of the Universe. Einstein’s work also led to the discovery of exotic physical phenomena such as black holes, gravitational waves, quantum entanglement, the Big Bang, and the Higgs boson. But despite this formidable scientific legacy, Einstein’s fame owes something more to our culture’s obsession with celebrity. In many ways, Einstein was well-suited for celebrity. Apart from his distinctive coif, he had a way with words and, as a result, he is frequently quoted, occasionally with bon mots he didn’t actually say. More than anything, Einstein possessed the distinctive mystique of genius, a sense that he was larger than life, or different from the rest of us in some fundamental way, which is why so many people were desperate to get hold of his brain.
Many people have wondered whether genius is a physical attribute, a special feature that could be isolated in the brain, and Einstein’s grey matter is considered a fertile experimental ground for testing this claim. Unfortunately, as the psychologist Terence Hines has argued, the published studies that were carried out on Einstein’s brain are flawed in important ways. In each case, researchers compared parts of Einstein’s brain to people assumed to be ‘normal’, but in most of these studies the scientists knew which brain sample was Einstein’s. They set about looking for differences – any differences – between Einstein and the control brains and, when you approach science in this way, it’s very easy to find differences.
After all, there was only one Einstein, just as there’s only one ‘you’ and only one ‘me’. The only way to be sure that Einstein’s brilliance was due to his anatomy would be to analyse his brain alongside many other people like him, in contrast to people unlike him. Otherwise, it’s impossible to tell the difference between the unique physiological characteristics of his genius and random variation between individuals. But that doesn’t mean we can’t investigate his genius. For while we might not have good studies of his brain, we do have the story of his life, and the contents of his mind, in the form of his research.
Einstein is often remembered as a harmless, other-worldly figure, detached from mundane problems. Certainly he had his eccentricities: he wore sweatshirts that grew rattier over the years, because wool sweaters made him itch. He didn’t like socks, and sometimes wore women’s shoes on vacation. But the conventional narrative of Einstein as tweedy eccentric ignores his radical politics and occasionally troubled personal life. After all, Einstein was a socialist and advocate for one-world government and, until Hitler rose to power, championed demilitarisation and pacifism. He was also passionately anti-racist, hosting the African-American contralto Marian Anderson at his house when Princeton hotels refused to serve her in 1937, and after.
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