You may do it with a common bread knife and cut board. At least that’s what was done in the indescribable scene above, perhaps one of the most strange happenings in the history of science. And it was filmed. And we have the video.
The white object inside the jar, I must emphasize, is a piece of Albert Einstein’s brain. The Albert Einstein. The knife and board are common kitchen utensils, used to cut bread, I must repeat. Bread from Thomas Harvey, the man cutting a piece of Einstein’s brain to give as a souvenir to Kenji Sugimoto, a Japanese teacher fanatic for the German physicist. Sugimoto soon takes the piece to a Karaoke bar.
The unbelievable story of how this happened is documented in “Einstein’s Brain” (1994) by Kevin Hull. You can read a detailed (and hilarious) review in Encyclopedia Obscura: Einstein’s Brain, but keep reading to watch the whole thing along with some updates on the story.
Relic’s: Einstein’s Brain (1994) – Playlist in 7 parts, 62:46
This is surely one of the most shocking, and yet fascinating documentaries I have ever seen. Sugimoto is a funny, adorable character – or as Sandvik described him, “pretty much a Japanese Winnie-the-Pooh with less than mediocre social skills, only bigger and with crazy hair.”)
The absurd quest for the brain, and forgive the spoiler, the incredible finding up until the climax involving the unclassifiable scene of the section of part of the brain to be put inside an old pill cup is… unclassifiable.
And it’s all real, it’s all true. Not only is it a documentary, it’s almost a reality show. Many refuse to believe such a story could possibly be true, and yet, everything checks.
Kenji Sugimoto exists and did publish a biography on Albert Einstein. Thomas Harvey also exists, or existed. In a note from Science that is the reason I’m writing this post, I found that Harvey passed away in 2007.
He did return what remained of the brain to the University Medical Center of Princeton in 1998, where according to Michael Balter from Science, “it remains today”. Presumably the piece that was given to Sugimoto remains in Japan. Probably not in an old pill cup anymore.
Many would classify the destiny and handling of Einstein’s brain as revolting. That’s only reinforced given that it’s assumed Einstein himself wished for his body to be cremated. He, along with his family, feared the remains could be worshipped as some kind of relic. They were right. His body was cremated, with the exception of the brain.
In this story of questionable science and medical ethics, exactly how the brain was removed and preserved is not very clear. Michael Paternity, in the book Driving Mr. Albert, tells in more details the different accounts on the events.
Although there seems to have been a big deal of conflict about the possession of the brain – and Harvey only released it more than four decades later – apparently he did collaborate and shared material with all of those who asked from the beginning until the very end.
Harvey’s original photos of the brain still as a whole were in fact the base for this most recent study by Dean Falk, from Florida State University, highlighted by Science. Falk claims to have identified some unusual features that, who knows, could be associated with the genius.
Well, truth is, nobody knows. Since Einstein’ death in 1955, and contrary to his wishes, his brain was removed, preserved, photographed, sectioned and then has been analyzed since by many. But no in-depth study has ever been conducted, much less published. Some superficial studies with different approaches have suggested the brain has some different features, but then, all brains are expected to be somewhat different from one another. Even if you find that Albert Einstein’s brain is indeed unusually different in some aspect, the relevance of that is nowhere clear.
More than half a century later, we are still far from uncovering how that mass of 1230 grams, not particularly noticeable by itself – in fact, somewhat small – was capable to conceiving such brilliant ideas.
One day we will know, if not in the particular case of Einstein, but in the more general case of living geniuses. Let’s just hope the man (or woman) who finally takes that step will not have part of his brain ending inside an old pill cup. It would make a great documentary and could even include a lovable Japanese teacher, but it’s not very appropriated.
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- Encyclopedia Obscura: Einstein’s Brain
- Closer Look at Einstein’s Brain
- Dissecting Genius: Einstein’s Brain and the Search for the Neural Basis of Intellect
- Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein’s Brain
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