Jun 28, 2019

G: Relative Genius

Albert Einstein asked that when he died, his body be cremated and his ashes be scattered in a secret location. He didn’t want his grave, or his body, becoming a shrine to his genius. When he passed away in the early morning hours of April, 18, 1955, his family knew his wishes. There was only one problem: the pathologist who did the autopsy had different plans.

In the third episode of “G”, Radiolab’s miniseries on intelligence, we go on one of the strangest scavenger hunts for genius the world has ever seen. We follow Einstein’s stolen brain from that Princeton autopsy table, to a cider box in Wichita, Kansas, to labs all across the country. And eventually, beyond the brain itself entirely. All the while wondering, where exactly is the genius of a man who changed the way we view the world? 

 

This episode was reported by Rachael Cusick and Pat Walters, and produced by Bethel Habte, Rachael Cusick, and Pat Walters. Music by Alex Overington and Jad Abumrad. 

Special thanks to: Elanor Taylor, Claudia Kalb, Dustin O’Halloran, Tim Huson, The Einstein Papers Project, and all the physics for (us) dummies Youtube videos that accomplished the near-impossible feat of helping us understand relativity.

Radiolab’s “G” is supported in part by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science.

Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate

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[RADIOLAB INTRO]

 

PAT WALTERS: Hey this is G, a Radiolab mini-series. I’m Pat Walters.

 

RACHAEL CUSICK: And I’m Rachael Cusick.

 

PAT: And today, we're gonna go looking for intelligence in what might seem like one of the more obvious places.

 

RACHAEL: Do you need water?

 

STEVEN LEVY: Yeah, water's okay.

 

PAT: And the story starts with this guy.

 

STEVEN LEVY: Yeah, my name is Steven Levy. I am an Editor at Large at Wired Magazine.

 

RACHAEL: Thank you so much for coming in. Basically, I guess, where did this all start for you?

 

STEVEN LEVY: So in 1978, I was working for a magazine called New Jersey Monthly.

 

RACHAEL: Steve was young, fresh out of school.

 

STEVEN LEVY: It was my first real job in journalism.

 

PAT: Offices were in a suburb outside Princeton, New Jersey.

 

STEVEN LEVY: Sort of an office park, very bland set of offices with cubicles and, you know, really Dunder Mifflin-ish.

 

PAT: Steve says it was a typical, boring entry-level job, until this one day ...

 

STEVEN LEVY: We had a new editor.

 

PAT: It got interesting.

 

STEVEN LEVY: Yeah, he called me into his office and said, "I want you to find Einstein's brain." And I thought, "What?"

 

PAT: Yeah. Were you like, "That sounds exciting," or were you like, "I don't know."

 

STEVEN LEVY: I thought that sounds pretty cool. That sounds pretty cool. You know, I had been working on a piece about the psychology of the New Jersey driver, right?

 

PAT: Right. Not really stiff competition.

 

STEVEN LEVY: I mean, I literally did a service piece about racquetball, which was a big trend then. This is better.

 

PAT: Now, the reason the editor assigned him this story is there had been these rumors going back years that when Einstein died back in 1955, moments after his death, someone had literally stolen his brain and run off with it.

 

STEVEN LEVY: Sort of an urban legend. Einstein's brain is somewhere. And, you know, the Russians have it and they’re trying to clone Einstein.

 

RACHAEL: [laughs]

 

PAT: And Steve's editor just wanted him to get to the bottom of it.

 

STEVEN LEVY: He literally said to me, I want you to find Einstein's brain.

 

RACHAEL: What did you know about Einstein at that point, and his brain?

 

STEVEN LEVY: Well, you know, what I knew about Einstein is what anyone on the street would know about Einstein, essentially. You know, there was this guy with the funny hair, relativity, right? Whatever that was.

 

RACHAEL: [laughs]

 

RACHAEL: What he would quickly learn ...

 

STEVEN LEVY: Something to do with the atom bomb ...

 

RACHAEL: After a little bit of reading, is that in the early 20th century, Einstein pretty much rewrote the way we thought the universe worked.

 

[ARCHIVAL CLIP: Einstein, brilliant physicist, a theoretical mathematician ...]

 

[ARCHIVAL CLIP: A scientific giant.]

 

RACHAEL: He said that mass is equivalent to energy.

 

[ARCHIVAL CLIP: E equals MC squared.]

 

RACHAEL: Which led to the atom bomb.

 

[ARCHIVAL CLIP: Jaw-shattering devastation in which was born the atomic age.]

 

PAT: He also said time and space could both bend, which led to the discovery of black holes and, like, a million other things.

 

[ARCHIVAL CLIP: He enabled man to embark at last on a total adventure.]

 

RACHAEL: And it didn’t take long before Einstein just became a symbol ...

 

[TELEVISION CLIP: Do you think you're smarter than Einstein?]

 

RACHAEL: For ...

 

[TELEVISION CLIP: I said, "No, ma. No.”]

 

RACHAEL: Intelligence.

 

PAT: For genius.

 

[TELEVISION CLIP: I'm not a genius. I'm not Einstein.]

 

[TELEVISION CLIP: You don’t have to be an Einstein.]

 

[TELEVISION CLIP: Little Einsteins.]

 

PAT: So that was Steve’s assignment. Find the brain of the guy whose name basically means genius.

 

STEVEN LEVY: And he said, "By the way, this is gonna be our cover in August." A few weeks, six weeks away or something?

 

PAT: Didn't have a lot of time.

 

RACHAEL: How do you even begin looking for the brain of a guy that died decades ago?

 

STEVEN LEVY: You know, there was this thing called the library.

 

RACHAEL: [laughs]

 

RACHAEL: So Steve knew Einstein lived in Princeton and died in Princeton.

 

STEVEN LEVY: April, 1955.

 

RACHAEL: So he headed over to the local public library, pulls up the newspaper archive.

 

STEVEN LEVY: Look at the microfilm.

 

RACHAEL: And he finds this article.

 

STEVEN LEVY: Written a couple days after Einstein died, and it said Einstein's brain to be preserved for study. And it talked about, yeah, there's gonna be a study of Einstein's brain and, you know, they're gonna have a press conference about it.

 

RACHAEL: So he pulls up the next day’s paper, thinking there will be a big front page story about this press conference.

 

STEVEN LEVY: And nothing.

 

RACHAEL: Crickets.

 

STEVEN LEVY: Nothing. There was no press conference.

 

PAT: It didn't happen?

 

STEVEN LEVY: No!

 

PAT: So then he thinks, okay.

 

STEVEN LEVY: That's 23 years ago. You know, the brain's studied. Something’s got to be published.

 

PAT: Like, by scientists.

 

STEVEN LEVY: I went through all sorts of scientific periodical guides. No papers. I mean, I really looked hard.

 

PAT: And eventually he realizes, that little newspaper article ...

 

STEVEN LEVY: That was literally, that was the last thing written about Einstein’s brain.

 

PAT: But there was one clue in that little newspaper article. A name. The name of the guy who was supposed to hold that press conference that never happened.

 

STEVEN LEVY: Dr. Thomas Harvey.

 

PAT: Who it seemed, in addition to being the guy who didn't hold that press conference, was also the pathologist who would have done the autopsy on Einstein.

 

RACHAEL: So, the next stop on Steve’s search ...

 

STEVEN LEVY: The Princeton Hospital.

 

RACHAEL: The place Einstein died, and where supposedly this Harvey guy worked at.

 

STEVEN LEVY: And I went there. I found -- I talked to the vice president and I asked him about the pathologist, this guy, Dr. Thomas Harvey. Where’s Dr. Harvey?

 

PAT: Hospital guy says ...

 

STEVEN LEVY: He left here a long time ago.

 

PAT: And then Steve's like, "What about the brain? I heard the brain got taken, is it here at the hospital?"

 

STEVEN LEVY: And he didn’t know anything. I had to talk to Dr. Harvey.

 

RACHAEL: So what do you do to find Harvey?

 

STEVEN LEVY: So -- you know, so looking for a person in 1978, there's no Google. You know, there's no Facebook, there's no LinkedIn. So -- and there's a lot of places, a lot of cities. You know, each -- every city had a phone book. But you couldn't look at every phone book.

 

RACHAEL: Yeah.

 

STEVEN LEVY: I eventually figured one place I might go is the American Medical Association.

 

PAT: Figures this guy Harvey is a doctor, maybe they have his contact info.

 

STEVEN LEVY: So I called them up. You know, I said, "I’m really trying to find this Dr. Thomas Harvey. Thomas S. Harvey." I knew his middle name. And this very kindly woman, you know, looked up stuff, and then told me there is a Thomas S. Harvey in Wichita, Kansas.

 

PAT: So he calls directory assistance in Wichita, and says, "Do you guys have a number for a Thomas Harvey?" They said yes. He asks, "Is that number listed?" And they said yes.

 

STEVEN LEVY: And they gave me his phone number. And I took a deep breath and dialed the phone number. Back then, if someone wasn’t there, it would just ring and ring and you’d hang up and that would be it. Because it's pre-answering machine. But he picked up the phone. And I said, "Is this Dr. Harvey?" And he said yes. And I said, "Is this the Dr. Harvey who worked at Princeton Hospital in 1955?" And there was this pause. Like, I figured, this is sort of yes or no question, right?

 

RACHAEL: [laughs]

 

STEVEN LEVY: There was a pause. Like, he was almost debating whether to own up to this. And finally he said yes. In retrospect, maybe it was a little of the jig is up. And he said, "Well, I don't know if I could help you." And I said, "Well, I’d just like to talk to you." He said, "Well --" and he, you know, was sort of not saying yes or no. And I said, "You know what? I'm coming out there to talk to you." So I booked a ticket for Wichita, Kansas.

 

RACHAEL: Steve hops on a plane to Kansas. He spends the night. And then the next morning he wakes up, gets a cab and goes over to Harvey's lab.

 

STEVEN LEVY: I rang the bell or whatever, and Dr. Harvey came to open the door for me.

 

RACHAEL: What did he look like?

 

STEVEN LEVY: He looked like, you know, the guy who would be your pediatrician. You know, this kindly-looking guy in his sixties, I guess. He's wearing a lab coat, and I remember very clearly he had in his pocket one of those pens that could write in three colors, you know, red, green, blue? And he took me back to the back of the facility to his office which was basically a glassed-in cubicle. And with a desk and a chair, some shelves, and some cardboard boxes behind the chair. And I sat down and we talked.

 

PAT: Now at this point, Harvey hadn’t admitted to anything. But Steve had a feeling, a definite feeling.

 

STEVEN LEVY: Yeah, you could tell he's very cautious, very guarded. You know, and I'm asking every way to try to figure out where the brain is. And I asked him a few times, you know, "Where's the brain?" And he really didn't want to answer that. And then finally, I just said, "Well, don’t you even have any pictures of it?" And then he sort of broke down when I asked, you know, maybe because he sensed I was so frustrated. Because, you know, I was saying, "No pictures, even?" And he just sort of, like, sagged a little. So he gets up and he walks behind me and there was sort of like a beer cooler near where he was. And I’m thinking, "It's in the beer cooler? No!" He keeps walking past there, and he goes behind me to where one of the cardboard boxes is.

 

PAT: And he pulls out these two jars.

 

STEVEN LEVY: And in one of the jars there are these pieces of biomass floating in there. They’re clearly brain stuff. And I'm, like, staring at this thing. And I'm, like, thunderstruck. I mean, it was like a jolt, you know? This was amazing. I mean, you know, you could hear the chorus of angels singing, "Ahh, Einstein's brain!" I'm taking this in and I'm like, "This is the brain that changed the world." And to see that brain was a moving experience, actually. I have to say. I’d gotten this glimpse of something.

 

RACHAEL: Of what though?

 

STEVEN LEVY: Of something big. Of something -- you know, of a mystery.

 

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, EINSTEIN: It follows from the special theory of relativity ...]

 

PAT: In this episode ...

 

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, EINSTEIN: ... that mass and energy are both ...]

 

PAT: We’re going to try to untangle that mystery.

 

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, EINSTEIN: ... but different manifestations of the same thing.]

 

PAT: What can the brain of one of the greatest geniuses that humanity has ever produced ...

 

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, EINSTEIN: A somewhat unfamiliar conception for the average mind.]

 

PAT: Like, what can that brain tell us?

 

JAD ABUMRAD: Well, I'm just gonna say for the record that I think that's silly. And I think that brain is just a whole ...

 

PAT: Who invited you?

 

JAD: I do not think ....

 

RACHAEL: You just come in here with your egg sandwich.

 

JAD: [laughs] Don't bring my egg sandwich into this. I would just like to declare my bias that I don't think there's anything special about his brain.

 

PAT: Anything? Not even ...

 

JAD: I mean, he was clearly a genius.

 

PAT: So what is that? Where ...

 

JAD: There's something about the idea that his genius is tied to the physical structure of his brain that makes me itchy.

 

PAT: Hmm.

 

JAD: Literally, that's the physical sensation I have. I start to itch.

 

PAT: Yeah. I think you're dismissing it too soon. I think there's more to it than you suspect.

 

JAD: Hmm. All right. Well, let me ask you a more basic question. What's the fellow's name again?

 

PAT: Thomas Harvey.

 

JAD: How did he end up with that brain to begin with?

 

FRED LEPORE: Well, you know, to answer your question ...

 

PAT: This is Dr. Fred Lepore, he's a neurologist. Also wrote a book about Einstein. He’s one of the people we talked to to answer that very question. And he says you gotta go back to winter of 1955.

 

FRED LEPORE: Einstein was living on borrowed time.

 

PAT: He's 76 years old, retired, living in Princeton. And he gets sick. Starts to feel this pain in his abdomen.

 

FRED LEPORE: It was so -- it almost felt like a gallbladder attack.

 

RACHAEL: Turned out to be way worse than that.

 

FRED LEPORE: Ultimately, he had an abdominal aortic aneurysm. Frank Glenn, who was a neurosurgeon -- not a neurosurgeon, a surgeon at Cornell came down.

 

RACHAEL: Ready to operate.

 

FRED LEPORE: But Einstein basically said, look, you know, my time is up. I -- I will die. I think he said I will die elegantly. He knew he was -- and that was a brave thing to say, because he was in pain.

 

RACHAEL: And eventually, in the spring of 1955 ...

 

[ARCHIVAL CLIP: Einstein entered the hospital Friday, died this morning after refusing surgery, which it turned out, would not have helped him recover from a ruptured artery.]

 

FRED LEPORE: As the story goes in the early morning hours of April 18th, he muttered a couple of incomprehensible words -- incomprehensible to his nurse, who didn't speak German. And then, in the early morning hours, he was found dead.

 

PAT: Now Tom Harvey, our guy, was the chief pathologist at Princeton hospital. His job was to do autopsies. And that night, April 18th, 1955, he’s at home sleeping, and he gets a call.

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: Yeah. I think the phone call came some time before dawn and it was Einstein’s personal physician who called him to let him know that Einstein’s son had given permission for an autopsy to be performed on his father.

 

PAT: This is Carolyn Abraham.

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: A science journalist. Author of Possessing Genius: The Story of the Bizarre Odyssey of Einstein's Brain.

 

PAT: Harvey actually died in 2007, but before he did Caroline spent some time with him and got his take on that day.

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: He, you know, gets himself ready and he remembered it was a really nice morning. Spring was in the air and, you know, things were turning green. And he was walking towards what he realized was going to be a major opportunity in his professional life. He got to that hospital and he got to his pathology lab, and someone that morning had already placed Einstein on the autopsy table.

 

PAT: She says he walked into the room, Einstein’s laying there flat on the table.

 

FRED LEPORE: And ...

 

PAT: He picks up a scalpel.

 

FRED LEPORE: And you know, he opened the abdomen, and he saw it was full of blood from the aneurysm. So he establishes cause of death.

 

PAT: Did a routine examination of the heart.

 

FRED LEPORE: But then he did something that was not in the script. He removed the top of the skull ...

 

PAT: Cut a bunch of cranial nerves and arteries ...

 

FRED LEPORE: And he took the brain out.

 

PAT: And then he put the brain in a jar, and walked out.

 

JAD: So he literally just stole the brain out of Einstein’s skull? Just stole it?

 

PAT: Yeah, which is pretty gross.

 

JAD: Isn't that a crime?

 

PAT: Probably?

 

FRED LEPORE: History has not been kind to Thomas S. Harvey.

 

PAT: But ...

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: In Tom Harvey's estimation, and he actually put it this way in our conversations once, is that he would have felt ashamed if he didn't take it.

 

RACHAEL: Ashamed?

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: Ashamed, because here was this opportunity to learn something about sort of the biological underpinnings of intelligence, of genius, you know, from arguably, you know, certainly one of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th century, and to not study it would have been negligent.

 

PAT: According to Carolyn, however misguided it might seem, Harvey says he wasn't taking the brain for himself, he was taking it for all of us. Like, for humanity. For science.

 

FRED LEPORE: But ...

 

PAT: Fast forward to the next day.

 

FRED LEPORE: The family, at this point, they read on the front page of the April 19th New York -- '55 New York Times read that the brain was preserved for science. And they were flabbergasted.

 

RACHAEL: Whoa, that was, like, the first time they heard of it?

 

FRED LEPORE: Yeah.

 

PAT: In the paper?

 

FRED LEPORE: Yeah.

 

RACHAEL: Oh, my God! They’re, like, having their Cheerios and that's how they find out?

 

FRED LEPORE: Yep.

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: The family didn't know and didn't give permission.

 

FRED LEPORE: The understanding -- although you'll find none of this in the will, but the understanding was Einstein would be cremated.

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: And his ashes scattered in a secret location so that quote unquote "No one could come and worship at my bones."

 

[ARCHIVAL CLIP: He was the first scientist to become a public figure, a legend in our times.]

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: Einstein was always very uncomfortable with the attention that celebrity brought with it.

 

RACHAEL: He was really afraid that people were gonna start to see him as something superhuman.

 

[ARCHIVAL CLIP: The realities of 20th century science, its power, are linked to Einstein’s image.]

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: It speaks to the fact that in the 20th century, science sort of displaced religion as what people put their faith in. And he was, you know, sort of its high priest.

 

RACHAEL: And so he didn’t want his gravesite ...

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: ... to become a shrine.

 

RACHAEL: That’s why he wanted to be cremated.

 

FRED LEPORE: As he was on April 18th. But Harvey kept the brain.

 

RACHAEL: So the family, when they saw that headline ...

 

RACHAEL: Do they knock on Harvey’s door?

 

PAT: Yeah, what do they do?

 

RACHAEL: And sort of say, what the hell?

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: No, they phone the hospital. They phone Princeton hospital and they’re very upset.

 

PAT: And eventually Hans Albert, Einstein’s eldest son, gets on the phone with Tom Harvey. Now, we don’t know exactly what they said to each other. You can probably imagine Hans Albert was upset, probably yelled at Tom Harvey. Tom Harvey apparently ...

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: Apologized for taking it without permission.

 

FRED LEPORE: And finally Harvey makes the pitch of his life. He says, you know, this is the mind for all the ages. We're never gonna get this opportunity again, and I pledge that I will do a scholarly study.

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: He made this very solemn vow to take care of this brain, to not allow it to become sort of an object of fascination.

 

PAT: Tom Harvey told Hans Albert he’d never let the brain become a spectacle. He’d honor Albert Einstein’s wishes. But if he could just study this brain it might reveal something.

 

FRED LEPORE: The secret of human genius and creativity. You can’t pass it up. And the son, Hans Albert said yes, you can study it.

 

PAT: But only as long as it’s serious science, no spectacle.

 

FRED LEPORE: So the next step that Harvey has, he's trying to craft a kind of a do-it-yourself approach to studying a famous brain.

 

PAT: Even though he’s a doctor ...

 

FRED LEPORE: Harvey's not trained in this kind of neuropathology. He learned some, but not to the degree that a specialist would.

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: He spends evenings taking photographs. He weighs it. He measures it.

 

FRED LEPORE: He hit some standard textbooks.

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: Different reference guides. One of the really interesting things he did during this period, he brought this artist in to paint a portrait of Einstein's brain.

 

RACHAEL: Oh!

 

PAT: Really?

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: When it was whole. He said he just wanted to have it. And he never did hang that painting.

 

RACHAEL: Really?

 

PAT: What an interesting thing to do.

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: I think partly, it was because he knew what had to happen next, or in his estimation, what he was going to do next.

 

FRED LEPORE: He's gonna cut the brain into 240 sections.

 

RACHAEL: And after that ...

 

FRED LEPORE: He goes across the Delaware ...

 

RACHAEL: I love that. Like he's George Washington or something.

 

FRED LEPORE: ... to the University of Pennsylvania, where there's a technician who he had worked with.

 

RACHAEL: He gave her some of those chunks of brain, and she slices them really thinly.

 

FRED LEPORE: Into microscope slides. And they made 12 sets. So when the smoke clears, and I’m sorry I’m dragging this out on you.

 

PAT: No, no. This is great, this is great!

 

FRED LEPORE: The smoke clears, and he’s got, I’m told 12 sets of at least 200 slides per set. And his job for the next few years is to try to take it individually to various neuropathologists who might be able to study this brain.

 

PAT: So Harvey sends out slides and photos and samples of Einstein’s brain.

 

FRED LEPORE: He was trying to collaborate with experts in the field

 

PAT: Specialist after specialist.

 

FRED LEPORE: We don't exactly know how many photographs he gave out, how many slides, who he gave them to.

 

PAT: But it was a lot.

 

RACHAEL: Despite all that effort, though ...

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: There's no record of them ever getting back to him or doing anything of importance. From the few scientists I was able to contact at that time who received those pieces who were still alive, they said they didn't really know what they should be looking for. Which of course, was true. This is where Tom Harvey ran into the reality of, you know, neuroscience at that time.

 

[ARCHIVAL CLIP: Everything we human beings ever do, no matter how ordinary it seems, has a complex beginning in our brains.]

 

RACHAEL: At that point, scientists had just started to figure out.

 

[ARCHIVAL CLIP: Neurons]

 

RACHAEL: What neurons do, how they communicate back and forth.

 

[ARCHIVAL CLIP: The brain alone has ten thousand million of them.]

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: They hadn’t even scratched the surface of sort of the understanding of a normal brain, let alone trying to, you know, solve the mystery of genius in Einstein's brain.

 

PAT: So years and years go by and nothing.

 

FRED LEPORE: But he wouldn’t give up. He knew it was of significance. He thought there was something that could be learned, and he never abandoned that.

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: And I think at this point, Harvey began to see himself as kind of a living time capsule. He was going to take this brain with him into the future when science would be equipped to study it properly.

 

RACHAEL: But in the meantime, Harvey's life sort of falls apart. He has an affair, he gets divorced and he loses his job at Princeton. And then he kind of just disappears.

 

FRED LEPORE: Yeah, he does.

 

PAT: That is until 1978, when a young reporter from New Jersey knocked on his door asking about a brain.

 

STEVEN LEVY: Got an airplane home.

 

RACHAEL: Wait, did you call your editor or something on your way?

 

STEVEN LEVY: Well the first thing that I did, I went straight to my editor’s house. And he was, like, watching a basketball game. And we watched a little of the basketball game, and -- without saying anything. And finally he says, "Well, did you find the brain?" And I said, "Yup."

 

RACHAEL: That’s how you tell him? That's like -- you hold it for halftime? Why wouldn’t you just bust open the door?

 

STEVEN LEVY: It was this moment, you know? That was it. And then I had to write it. We got a great image for the cover. The cover line was My Search for Einstein's Brain. And then one of the people who got the press release was the AP. So when the story came out, the AP ran a thing about it and bang! It was in every newspaper in the country.

 

[CLIP: Johnny Carson theme.]

 

STEVEN LEVY: Johnny Carson made a joke about the brain.

 

PAT: Oh, really?

 

RACHAEL: What was the joke, do you remember?

 

STEVEN LEVY: Something about the brain, you know, if it was really Einstein's brain, it would have been smart enough to get out of Wichita, or something like that.

 

RACHAEL: [laughs]

 

PAT: [laughs]

 

STEVEN LEVY: Yeah. And Dr. Harvey had people camped out on his lawn.

 

PAT: Really?

 

STEVEN LEVY: Yeah, everyone wanted to see the brain. It was, you know, a lot of attention. The Einstein estate went bonkers.

 

PAT: I mean, this is exactly what they didn't want to happen.

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: People came calling. There were cash offers for the brain. People all over the place started to write to him to volunteer to become its next keeper, and they offered him money.

 

PAT: So not only did Harvey fail to come up with any science about the brain, but he also broke that promise he made to the family.

 

RACHAEL: But, because of all the attention at least on the science side, his luck kind of changed.

 

STEVEN LEVY: One place that picked up the story was Science Magazine.

 

RACHAEL: By the late '70s, neuroscience had picked up.

 

[ARCHIVAL CLIP: The human brain.]

 

[ARCHIVAL CLIP: A report of a woman who had electrodes implanted in the brain.]

 

[ARCHIVAL CLIP: Two new techniques for exploring brains have been developed.]

 

RACHAEL: For example, we figured out there were opioid receptors in the brain.

 

[ARCHIVAL CLIP: Millions of these sensory receptors.]

 

RACHAEL: : And had developed a treatment for Parkinson’s. So scientists at this point were just slightly more equipped, and when Steve’s story came out ...

 

STEVEN LEVY: It actually kicked off real research into Einstein’s brain that directly flowed from my making it public.

 

JAD: So what happens?

 

PAT: So the first thing that happens is he gets a call from this scientist named ...

 

MARIAN DIAMOND: My name is Marian Diamond.

 

PAT: Marian Diamond.

 

JAD: That's a good name.

 

PAT: That's a great name. She's a professor of anatomy at Berkeley.

 

MARIAN DIAMOND: And I've been teaching here for many decades.

 

PAT: She was sort of famous on campus for carrying around a hat box.

 

MARIAN DIAMOND: Do you get excited coming to class?

 

PAT: And she would ...

 

MARIAN DIAMOND: How many have never seen a human brain before?

 

PAT: She'd begin her freshman anatomy lecture in front of all these kids by bringing her hat box onto the table and open it. And it was like a flower-print hat box.

 

RACHAEL: [laughs]

 

PAT: Open it up and pull out this brain.

 

MARIAN DIAMOND: Because this mass only weighs three pounds, and yet it has the capacity to conceive of a universe a billion light years across.

 

PAT: Some people call her one of the founders of modern neuroscience.

 

MARIAN DIAMOND: Now, isn't that phenomenal? A mass of protoplasm could do that?

 

PAT: So she did these studies on rats which became very famous, where she figured out that if you put a rat in an enriched environment, so a cage with a lot of toys, things to climb around on and lots of other rat friends to hang out with, instead of just putting them in the boring old normal cage, what you'll find is that their brains actually change. They'll have more of these little cells called glial cells, which for a long time people thought glial cells were just, like, the scaffolding of the brain.

 

JAD: Hmm.

 

PAT: Like, neurons were where the action was. That's where all the thinking happened. And glial cells were just like, you know, the studs and mortar of the house, just kind of holding everything together. But around this time when Marian Diamond was doing these studies, they were starting to realize that the glial cells also had neurotransmitters flowing through them. Like, that they might be more important than we thought. But shortly after she publishes her rat studies, she hears about Harvey.

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: She saw, you know, a little piece about it in the journal Science, and so she started to track down Harvey and she called him.

 

PAT: And in 1984, Harvey sends her four chunks of brain.

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: She went looking in Einstein’s brain to see if there was, you know, something similar to what she had been recording in her animal experiments.

 

PAT: And she finds that compared to the average brain, Einstein had a lot of glial cells.

 

JAD: What's -- what's a lot? Like, twice as many? Three times as many?

 

PAT: Well, about 70 percent more than the control group.

 

JAD: But what does that even mean, though?

 

PAT: I don't really know how to describe that, which is part of the problem. And on top of that, after she published this research, some other scientists raised questions that maybe the experimental methods weren't valid. So ...

 

JAD: Hmm. Not convinced.

 

PAT: Yeah, me neither. So that's Diamond.

 

JAD: Diamond.

 

RACHAEL: So after Diamond, then this guy Britt Anderson comes along. And his whole thing, he studied five other adult male dead brains.

 

JAD: Okay.

 

RACHAEL: He looked at their pre-frontal cortexes, and that's, like, where higher cognitive abilities are located. So, like, if you were gonna take a test, that's the part of your brain that's gonna be activated.

 

JAD: Uh-huh.

 

RACHAEL: And he found that compared to the other brains that he had, the neurons in Einstein's brain were more tightly-packed there.

 

JAD: Huh. So his neurons were more tightly-packed in a certain part of his brain.

 

RACHAEL: Yeah.

 

JAD: Did he have more neurons at that part, or less neurons?

 

RACHAEL: Same number, roughly. They were just more crowded together.

 

JAD: What does that say?

 

RACHAEL: I kind of take that as, like, Einstein's problem-solving abilities could go much more quickly and efficiently.

 

JAD: Nah?

 

RACHAEL: Yeah actually, Britt Anderson, the guy who found this? He dismisses himself in a way. He found a difference, but he also was quick to say, like, we just have one of these brains.

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: He said listen, you know, this was always gonna be an N of 1 in any experiment.

 

RACHAEL: He's kind of like the middle child of all these researchers. He made, like, the smallest splash.

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: But it is through Britt Anderson that Tom Harvey hears about Sandra Witelson in Canada.

 

RACHAEL: And that was like the biggest splash of them all.

 

JAD: Really?

 

RACHAEL: Yes. So Sandra Witelson in the fall of 1995, she ends up getting this fax.

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: A one-page fax from a man by the name of Thomas Harvey.

 

RACHAEL: And the fax basically says, "Hey, heard about your research."

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: "Would you like to study the brain of Albert Einstein?"

 

PAT: It almost seems like he would suspect it to be a prank. Like, I just picture it just being that sentence on a fax page.

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: Yeah, exactly. But, you know, obviously, she faxed back. "Yes." And so ...

 

RACHAEL: Harvey hops in the car with the brain. Brain's in the trunk, actually. And drives north.

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: To bring -- to bring the brain to Canada!

 

RACHAEL: And the reason he was so excited to have her look at the brain ...

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: What had really caught his attention was the fact that she had this collection of normal brains.

 

RACHAEL: She'd been doing this long-term before-and-after study. So years before, she had gotten this group together. Basically, like, they signed up, they'd, like, took IQ tests. They did all these things while they were still alive.

 

JAD: Oh!

 

RACHAEL: She knew their health history. And then when they died, she got to study their brains to see, like, a before-and-after picture of these people's brains.

 

JAD: Were these all smart people?

 

RACHAEL: So she had a mix, but the ones that she compared Einstein's brain to were all high-IQ men.

 

JAD: Hmm.

 

RACHAEL: So she makes this comparison, Einstein's brain versus these other brains in her collection. And she writes this article.

 

FRED LEPORE: And the gist of the article was that he had unusual parietal lobes.

 

RACHAEL: Unusual parietal lobes?

 

FRED LEPORE: The parietal lobes of Einstein's brain were anatomically exceptional, if you will.

 

JAD: Where is the parietal lobes again?

 

RACHAEL: It's kind of like where your baseball cap is, like, mainly ...

 

JAD: Isn't it sort of like top of your head, but back?

 

PAT: Or if you had a ...

 

RACHAEL: Yes, exactly.

 

PAT: A yarmulke.

 

RACHAEL: Yes.

 

RACHAEL: And this area of your brain, this is where all of your sensory information comes in. And because of that, it's also where your visual-spatial awareness is located. So like the way that you orient yourself in the world is mostly located in that part of your brain. Like, if you close your eyes and you think, "Where are my hands? Where my knees? Where are my feet?" Well, you have an internal mental map that's telling you where those things are. And that's your parietal lobe doing that. Anyhow, so what was different about this part of Einstein's brain is that if you imagine the brain to look like a walnut, which is kind of the only way I imagine the brain, there are, like, all these grooves and crevices. And there's this one groove, like a groovy groove, like a deeper crevice called the Sylvian Fissure. In Einstein's brain it was shorter than the rest of ours. And apparently that's very strange.

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: When she described it to me, she said it was, you know, to see this unique pattern in Einstein's brain was as striking as seeing a face with the eyebrows beneath the eyes.

 

JAD: Huh.

 

RACHAEL: And Sandra Witelson proposed that maybe because this crevice was a little bit shorter, the electricity in this part of his brain could go much more quickly.

 

JAD: Oh, because it wouldn't have to travel around the ...

 

RACHAEL: Yeah, it didn't have to take a detour over a ditch. It could just go pkew!

 

JAD: Mm-hmm. So this was her -- this was her speculation?

 

RACHAEL: This was her speculation. Yes. And so she was saying, like, the parietal lobe, like, this is where his genius might be. And if you think about Einstein, like everybody says, like, one of his greatest talents is, like, the way that he could manipulate shapes in his mind. And then, like, orient objects in his head.

 

FRED LEPORE: I mean, just the idea that space-time is curved, you know? So he has this kind of great visual-spatial sense. And if you had to pick a part of your brain that could underlie mathematical abilities or visual-spatial abilities, that's parietal lobes.

 

RACHAEL: When I was looking up these papers, you see Thomas Harvey's name as, like, the co-author.

 

PAT: Oh, he was a co-author?

 

RACHAEL: Yeah. He's, like, cited in the paper. And it just made my heart happy, like he made it! He got it! Especially for Sandra Witelson, because he all these years had been, like, shepherding this forward. And when that paper came out ...

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: I think Tom Harvey felt then that -- that his work was over.

 

JAD: Because he felt at that point that they had pointed to something that was real.

 

RACHAEL: Yes.

 

JAD: And true.

 

RACHAEL: He felt like finally the work that he promised to do in the very beginning was finally done. And at that point ...

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: He actually decided to give the brain back to Princeton Hospital in the care of Elliot Krauss. Basically, the pathologist who holds the same job he did when he first took that brain in 1955.

 

RACHAEL: Wow, it came full circle.

 

CAROLYN ABRAHAM: You know, it's -- it's kind of uncanny that it's back where it was.

 

RACHAEL: Mm-hmm.

 

PAT: Yeah.

 

JAD: I'm just gonna rain on this parade for a second. I'm happy for Mr. Harvey, but in terms of the science, maybe you convinced me a little bit, like a medium bit, but it still kind of smells like phrenology to me. I mean, it's like, listening to it, the experience that I have is like, "Ooh! A Sylvian Fissure! His was smaller!"

 

PAT: Yeah.

 

JAD: And then I think to myself, what the fuck is a Sylvian Fissure? I don't even know what that is.

 

PAT: Yeah.

 

JAD: And like the fact that, like, we so clearly default to this fascination with a thing that I don't -- I can't even explain, it just kind of seems absurd.

 

RACHAEL: Yeah.

 

PAT: And we know that he said that, like, he didn't think he was a particularly special guy. Like, he said various -- there's lots of quotes from him where he talks about saying, like, I was just in the right place at the right time. Or ...

 

JAD: He does say that. Really?

 

PAT: Yeah. Or, you know, when he's talking about his fame, he has some quote about worrying that the packaging of him is better than the meat inside, or something. Like he's a sausage. I mean, this is part of the myth of him, is like -- I mean, he was very humble.

 

JAD: Yeah.

 

PAT: There's another one where he talks about, like -- he sometimes talks about what made him special was his stubbornness, that he was really obstinate and he wouldn't let things go. That's one of the only things I feel like you hear him talking about as some innate characteristic of him that made him different than other people. But he never talks about being smart. He never talks about his brain. I mean, I haven't read every Einstein quote, but I feel like we've been swimming around in it for a while the last few months, and I haven't seen him say anything about his brain, ever.

 

JAD: It is interesting that he says he's -- he was in the right place at the right time.

 

RACHAEL: Mm-hmm.

 

PAT: Mm-hmm.

 

JAD: Which can sound kind of like humble, but also maybe it's like if you take it seriously, maybe there is something to it.

 

PAT: Yeah. I mean, we've been talking about the neural connections inside his head, but you can also think about it a little more broadly. Like about the connections outside his head. Almost as if the neurons didn't stop inside his skull, but, like, continued outward into the world around him.

 

JAD: Hmm.

 

PAT: And that's what we're gonna do after a quick break.

 

[MADELEINE: Hi, this is Madeleine calling from Berlin, Germany. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www. sloan.org]

 

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PAT: This is G, and we are -- we are, what are we doing here?

 

JAD: [laughs] What are we doing here, Pat?

 

PAT: We are back from our break.

 

JAD: Just to reset, I was intrigued by the thing you said at the end of the last chapter that, you know, there are the circuits in his head, but then what about the circuits outside his head? Maybe he just got lucky. What were you thinking of when you said that?

 

PAT: Yeah, I mean a lot of -- there's sort of the obvious things that must be said. Einstein was building on the work of lots of other physicists like Poincare and Lorentz who had been chipping away at these same questions that puzzled him. So there's that. But if you widen the lens a little bit and you start to think more broadly, you start to see some really interesting kind of bigger forces that were at work on Einstein when he was coming up with these ideas. Like, just take Special Relativity which most people would say is one of his most revolutionary ideas.

 

JAD: And Special Relativity is?

 

PAT: Special Relativity to put it, like, very basically is the idea that time is relative and that times slows down as you go faster. So if you're going a million miles an hour versus 10 miles an hour, time will literally slow down for you. It won't just seem slower, it will actually be slower.

 

JAD: I feel like this is the moment when science and common sense just parted ways. It's such a weird idea.

 

PAT: Totally. Well, that idea, like, came from Einstein, but it also kind of came from the world around him.

 

JAD: Hmm.

 

PAT: Okay, so I'm gonna give you a couple of really interesting examples that we came across as we were researching this.

 

JAD: Okay.

 

PAT: Number one ...

 

PETER GALLISON: I'm not at all an expert on the brain story, I'm looking at some of the same things that you have.

 

PAT: ... comes from this guy.

 

PAT: Could you introduce yourself?

 

PETER GALLISON: I'm Peter Gallison. I'm a professor at Harvard University where I work on the history and philosophy of science and on physics.

 

PAT: And what Peter told us is if you look at when Einstein came up with the idea of Special Relativity, this was 1905. The story that's often told is Einstein was working in the patent office, just sitting around all by himself thinking big thoughts. But if you look at what was actually happening at that moment. Like, outside ...

 

PETER GALLISON: This was a transformative moment in the technological history of the world.

 

PAT: Yeah, what were some of the big, like, hot inventions happening?

 

PETER GALLISON: Well, if you looked out the window of any Central European or Western European city, you would see new kinds of trams being installed, electric motors. You would see networks of clocks that were established. You would see all sorts -- new devices that were being invented that could send signals, the extension of the telegraph network. Everything in motion, everything in change. And ...

 

PAT: As a consequence, he says ...

 

PETER GALLISON: Time is -- has suddenly become a topic of immense interest.

 

PAT: Not just because the world seemed to be moving faster, but because for the first time in human history, you could be in several different times at once.

 

PETER GALLISON: As you ran trains, say you leave Chicago at 3 p.m., when you get to a distant city, what time is it there? Do you use the time that you started with in Chicago? Do you use the time that you're arriving at in Philadelphia? Who sets -- what are the times?

 

PAT: You know, before the railroad, time was local. Every town had its own time.

 

PETER GALLISON: Set in each town by the local jeweler who repaired and made clocks and watches.

 

PAT: But then with the railroad you needed a central time. And there were literally skirmishes over whose time would become the time. We actually did a show about this, like a million years ago.

 

PETER GALLISON: It was a big, big struggle. There were people who didn't like that at all. But suddenly the ability to traverse at a fairly high speed, hundreds even thousands of miles, created the demand to think about what time was and how to coordinate it.

 

PAT: So that was sort of the mood of the moment. Like, just outside the window of the patent office where Einstein was sitting there thinking big thoughts. And one of the specific questions he was wrestling with was the one Peter just threw out. Like, how would you coordinate two different clocks in two different cities? A lot of people at the time thought the way you do it is you send an electrical signal, like through a telegraph wire from one clock to the other, calculate the amount of time it would take that signal to get from the first clock to the second clock, then you take that miniscule amount of time and subtract it from one of the clocks or add it to one of the clocks, and then you'd have the same time in two places. And that sort of solved the problem. But then the next thought Einstein had was what if that signal you were using was traveling at the speed of light? And what if those two clocks -- like, what if one of them was moving? And if it was moving and the light was sort of chasing it, wouldn't it take the light longer to get there? And wouldn't that, like, screw up your whole ability to coordinate time? Why am I telling you this? Because these kinds of questions, they sort of infiltrated Einstein's dreams.

 

JIMENA CANALES: Einstein wrote about this in his autobiography, so we have a very good idea.

 

PAT: That's Jimena Canales.

 

JIMENA CANALES: I'm a historian of science.

 

PAT: At the University of Illinois. And she says Einstein wrote about these very particular daydreams he had.

 

JIMENA CANALES: He said that he imagined himself being propelled through space chasing after a light beam. And that, historians of science, biographers of Einstein often agree that it was that sort of experiment of seeing, you know, what actually happens if I pursue a light beam that had the -- provided the origin of his thought of the Theory of Relativity.

 

PAT: And I'll explain why that light beam was such a big deal in a minute, but the main thing Jimena wanted to tell me about it was that it often gets explained as something that just emerged from Einstein's brain. Like, that was purely an original idea of his.

 

JIMENA CANALES: But it was not his idea at all.

 

PAT: According to Jimena, a story he read sort of led him to it. She says Einstein loved science fiction as a kid.

 

JIMENA CANALES: And he said he was particularly taken by one author. The name is Aaron Bernstein, who wrote quite a few volumes. And Einstein says that he read them with quote "breathless attention."

 

PAT: And Jimena says the story that got Einstein thinking about chasing light beams was about ...

 

JIMENA CANALES: A faster-than-light traveler, and what happens if we travel faster than the speed of light.

 

PAT: The story sort of imagines that you could have a guy who shoots off into space and perches himself on a star, where he looks back at Earth. And what he sees isn't the same Earth he left.

 

JIMENA CANALES: But a different world, a different universe.

 

PAT: But an earlier Earth. Because, as Bernstein explains, when we look out at anything in space, we're not seeing it exactly as it is, but rather as it was.

 

JIMENA CANALES: For example, when you look at the sun, you're really seeing the sun eight minutes in the past, because the light waves take time to -- to reach you.

 

PAT: And because this traveler could travel faster than light ...

 

JIMENA CANALES: All you needed to do, you know, if you wanted to look at the Earth eight minutes in the past, all you needed to do was to go to the sun. And if you jump into farther and farther planets and stars, then you can choose whatever time in history you want to see.

 

PAT: So in this story, this traveler could bounce from that first star to a planet to another star and another and another.

 

JIMENA CANALES: Quote, "In one point in space, the light of the scenes of the French Revolution is just coming into view. And even farther away, the invasion of the barbarians has just become the order of the day. Alexander The Great is still conquering the world. Historical events that have long been dead for us will just be coming to life.

 

PAT: By the way, this was one of the first time travel stories in history, which is crazy to think about. 3,000 years of human writings and almost nobody to that point had imagined someone going back in time or going into the future. These stories that today are so much a part of movies and culture, they all basically started at the time Einstein was growing up. He just happened to be alive at that time. And Jimena says they opened his mind.

 

JIMENA CANALES: And he said that these stories really prompted him to imagine himself being propelled through space chasing after a light beam.

 

PAT: And the reason that mental image was so pivotal for Einstein was that right around the time it popped into his head, other physicists were noticing this weird thing about the speed of light. Unlike everything else in the known world, light always moved at the same speed, no matter how fast you were moving relative to it. And in picturing himself riding along beside this light beam, Einstein realized that if light always moved at the same speed, if light was constant then time must be relative. Which sort of, you know, eventually would turn our understanding of the universe upside down.

 

JAD: So you're saying that if he hadn't been alive at a time where there are railroads which created time problems, all the while there are people writing time travel fiction for the first time in history, all that hadn't been happening he might not have thought the thoughts that he thunk.

 

PAT: Yeah. Yeah, like I -- I still think there was something about his brain that explains part of it.

 

JAD: Okay.

 

PAT: But all this other stuff, the time travel, the railroads, the stories, I would say that that adds, like, another 25 percent.

 

JAD: So the brain is what, like a 20?

 

PAT: Yeah, give the brain maybe 20.

 

JAD: I would say 12, but that's okay. Let's go with 20. 20 plus 25, sort of like roughly half. I don't know. A half. Let's say it's a half.

 

PAT: Yeah, I like halfway there.

 

JAD: This precise math that we're doing.

 

RACHAEL: I'm gonna see if I can push us a little bit further.

 

JAD: Okay. You have another explanation.

 

RACHAEL: Oh, yeah.

 

JAD: Bring it. What do you got?

 

RACHAEL: I've got two. I'm gonna start small.

 

JAD: Okay.

 

RACHAEL: And the first one, I spoke to this guy, Alberto Martinez. He's a historian of science, and he told me that one of the other things Einstein was reading that really blew his mind was ...

 

ALBERTO MARTINEZ: David Hume!

 

RACHAEL: A Scottish philosopher David Hume, who had these pretty radical ideas including that the laws of nature kind of start in our heads.

 

ALBERTO MARTINEZ: That the fundamental concepts of science are free creations, free inventions of the human mind.

 

RACHAEL: Alberto says that those ideas gave Einstein permission to think his own crazy thoughts.

 

ALBERTO MARTINEZ: There's a letter from 1915 in which Einstein writes, "This line of thought was of great influence in my efforts. Very probably I wouldn't have reached the solution without those philosophical studies."

 

RACHAEL: And Einstein was kind of obsessed with him. So much so -- and this is a little bit of a digression, that just a couple of months before he was about to publish the Theory of Relativity ...

 

ALBERTO MARTINEZ: March of 1905.

 

RACHAEL: Einstein was supposed to meet with a group of his friends to discuss some of Hume's writings. Kind of like a study group. But one of the guys ...

 

ALBERTO MARTINEZ: This guy Maurice Solovine, he wanted to skip a meeting of their discussion group.

 

RACHAEL: Said he wanted to go see a violin concert or something.

 

ALBERTO MARTINEZ: When Einstein and his mathematician friend Conrad Habicht arrive ...

 

RACHAEL: And find that their buddy isn't there.

 

ALBERTO MARTINEZ: They are pissed off! So they're so upset that they take out their cigars and they start smoking and smoking and smoking, because they know Solovine hates smoking. And then they take the ashes of every cigar and smear them on his teapot, his tea kettle ...

 

RACHAEL: Oh my God! What a jerk!

 

ALBERTO MARTINEZ: Yeah! His -- his table, his pillow ...

 

JAD: His pillow?

 

RACHAEL: They totally trash his place. Such was Einstein's love of Hume.

 

JAD: I'm gonna give that, like, a seven. I'm gonna give that a seven percent.

 

RACHAEL: Okay, fine. But in terms of non-brain explanations of his genius, I'm about to give you my favorite.

 

ALBERTO MARTINEZ: All right. Here I go, here I go.

 

RACHAEL: Okay, so we're gonna rewind a couple years, back before the apartment trashing. Einstein's working for the government.

 

ALBERTO MARTINEZ: A third-class employee in the Swiss patent office.

 

RACHAEL: Not a great job.

 

ALBERTO MARTINEZ: He's just a bureaucrat. He calls himself a federal ink shitter.

 

RACHAEL: He was in his mid-twenties. He wanted to be a physicist so badly, but no one wanted to hire him.

 

ALBERTO MARTINEZ: Again and again they rejected him. Yet ...

 

RACHAEL: There was one person who thought he had something special.

 

ANDREA GABOR: So Mileva Maric was Serbian.

 

RACHAEL: This is writer Andrea Gabor, and she says Mileva and Einstein met in college.

 

ANDREA GABOR: At ETH in Zurich, the big university in Zurich. One of the few places where you could attend university as a woman.

 

RACHAEL: Mileva was actually the only woman in their class.

 

ALBERTO MARTINEZ: They're both in the same program for preparing future science and math teachers.

 

RACHAEL: They become study buddies, and pretty soon ...

 

ALBERTO MARTINEZ: She becomes his girlfriend.

 

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, EINSTEIN: I long terribly for a letter from my beloved witch. I can hardly grasp that we will be separated for so much longer. Only now do I see how frightfully much I love you.]

 

RACHAEL: Do you know anything about the early days of them as a couple? Were they -- I can -- I have this version in my head where it's like they were lovey-dovey but also speaking like they were on The Big Bang Theory. It's, like, these ridiculously scientific conversations.

 

ANDREA GABOR: Well, you know, I think it was -- I think it was both of those things. They’d go on these hikes in the Alps. They enjoy music together. It's a very romantic relationship, but it's also one that is very much based on this shared love of science.

 

ALBERTO MARTINEZ: They're studying physics. They're reading great works in physics that Einstein was ...

 

RACHAEL: He would skip class and then she would stay in class and, like, update him.

 

JAD: Aw, she would take notes for him?

 

RACHAEL: Yeah. Then they would, like, write these letters to each other about, like, these new ideas that he was reading about.

 

[LETTER CLIP, MILEVA: I'm very curious what Kleiner will say about the two papers. He'd better pull himself together and say something reasonable.]

 

ALBERTO MARTINEZ: This is the stuff from which his work on relativity is born. So she becomes the first person that, you know, analyzes and thinks about these things with him.

 

RACHAEL: She was, like, the first person from what I can tell to, like, really engage with him as, like, this, like, weird, off-the-beaten-path kind of guy. And, like, support that and, like, love that about him.

 

JAD: Okay.

 

RACHAEL: So they get married, they have kids. She leaves the science community. He continues to do his thing.

 

JAD: Why?

 

RACHAEL: Not very successfully.

 

JAD: Just because it was ...

 

RACHAEL: Just because she's a woman and that always happens. It's just that one of them had to do it. And for a long time, historians didn't think much about her. But then ...

 

ANDREA GABOR: You know, then these love letters. I mean, they really were a big news item.

 

RACHAEL: In 1986, a pile of letters between Mileva and Einstein turned up. And there was one letter, and there was one line from Einstein that kind of like rocked the world.

 

ALBERTO MARTINEZ: There's a letter from 1901 in which Einstein says, "How proud will I be when we both together bring our work on the relative motion victoriously to its end." That's what he literally says in his own penmanship.

 

RACHAEL: It says our work!

 

RACHAEL: Our work. Like, our theory.

 

JAD: Whoa!

 

RACHAEL: And everyone was like, "What? Like, could that -- like, was she helping him on the side?"

 

JAD: Oh my God, it was a collaboration?

 

RACHAEL: Yeah, that's what I was all about. I was like, "What?"

 

ANDREA GABOR: The sort of surprise at the idea that this iconic genius had had a wife who maybe was his equal.

 

ALBERTO MARTINEZ: There's a couple of other letters in which Einstein again refers to "our work, our theory." When you put them all together, it's enough to give anyone the impression "relative motion, our theory," that Einstein's literally saying that Mileva was his secret co-worker.

 

JAD: Wow! I'm giving that a 20!

 

RACHAEL: But before we get too excited about this. And by "we" I mostly mean me. I need to throw in a few big buts.

 

ALBERTO MARTINEZ: The replies that we have from her do not engage the science. The letters in which he writes these to her, he doesn't specify what she herself did.

 

RACHAEL: Alberto says when you read the letters, you realize what he believed at the time when he wrote that letter wasn't that special. That relative motion idea that he talked about in the letter, that's not relativity. In fact, that's kind of something everybody knew about at the time.

 

ALBERTO MARTINEZ: Did Einstein have the theory of relativity when he's writing them? And then the answer is no. He has nothing. And we have multiple sources in which he says, "I have nothing."

 

RACHAEL: So she probably wasn't his co-conspirator, but she did support him at this time when everybody else was kind of rejecting him. And for that, I would like to give her some points. I'm gonna say 15.

 

JAD: Based on -- based on what? Just because it makes you feel good to give her 15?

 

RACHAEL: Yeah. Just arbitrarily. I like to pick numbers out of the sky. It seems like that's what we're doing here.

 

JAD: True.

 

PAT: I'm with Rachael here. I support the 15.

 

JAD: No, I do too. I do too. Okay, so where does that leave us? That leaves us some percent for the physicists who came before, 25-ish percent for time and place, seven percent Hume, 15 percent Mileva, Yeah, that doesn't get us all the way there.

 

PAT: No. I know. So we decided to call one other person to see if we could get, like, a fifth thing. Because why not?

 

BRIAN GREENE: Well, I have an answer. And I think there are many ...

 

PAT: This is Brian Greene. Physicist. Professor at Columbia. He has written so much about Einstein. He's written about Einstein in his best-selling books, he's talked about him on television specials, he has a play about Einstein. He has written about all the ways Einstein has impacted the world, and all the ways the world impacted Einstein. But surprisingly, when we asked him about this, he brought it back to the brain.

 

BRIAN GREENE: I have to say if I was in the shoes of the pathologist at time, I may have absconded with his brain as well.

 

PAT: His basic point is yeah, there was the railroads and the time-travel fiction and there was Hume.

 

BRIAN GREENE: There was this confluence of so many different features ...

 

PAT: But those things were around for everybody. Somehow, all of them came together in this one brain in a way that was different.

 

BRIAN GREENE: Somewhere in the collection of atoms and molecules in the brain that we call Albert Einstein is the answer to why Albert Einstein was Albert Einstein.

 

PAT: Whether you think there was something innate about it like Einstein was born with some special mental equipment, or you think it had more to do with his environment, Brian says in the end, it doesn't really matter. Because everything you experience, rewrites your biology, it etches yourself into you. And so when you look at a brain, you're not just looking at a structure. You are, according to Brian, in some fundamental way looking at the life that person lived.

 

BRIAN GREENE: Yeah, every genius thought, every deep insight, every pattern recognized, happened inside that gloppy, gray, three or four pound structure. That's all there is.

 

PAT: Whatever set him apart, Brian says, is in there. Somewhere.

 

BRIAN GREENE: And if we had the capacity to lay out every single circuit and every single influence that could cascade through that brain, if we were able to fully understand all the electrical signals and crackles that would go through that brain, yes, I believe that we would fully understand Einstein's process, and understand how it was that he was able to do what he did. We can't do that. Yet.

 

FRED LEPORE: Well, there's a lot of interest in this concept that the structure of the brain is gonna tell you something about the function.

 

PAT: That's neurologist Fred Lepore, who we heard from earlier. And he says people are trying, not so much with Einstein's brain anymore. But he says there's this whole exploding area of neuroscience where researchers are trying to describe the brain at the level of detail Brian's describing.

 

FRED LEPORE: That's funded to the tune of $4.5-billion.

 

PAT: He told us about one guy who's doing this, just about a mile from where Einstein lived.

 

FRED LEPORE: There's a Princeton University professor, Sebastian Seung, and what he does is he takes a cubic millimeter -- a cubic millimeter of mouse retina. That's neural tissue, it's not brain. But it's neural tissue.

 

PAT: Mm-hmm.

 

FRED LEPORE: And he slices this into these vanishingly-thin sections and then he tries to trace the axons, the dendrites, the neurons, the astrocytes, the oligodendroglia, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. It can take months -- it can take months to do a cubic millimeter. And then you gotta have some kind of software that can analyze to see if the structure can lead you to some kind of conclusion about circuitry.

 

PAT: Right.

 

FRED LEPORE: Which might get you to function. Might get you to function.

 

PAT: Like, why not definitely? Like, if that doesn't get you to function, then what would? What would be -- what would be left out if we could map perfectly the structure of all the connections?

 

FRED LEPORE: Well, you're talking like me. You're talking like a -- see, I'm by default, I'm a neurologist, I'm a materialist. They call me a materialist because I'm saying, "Well, the left side of the brain has something to do with the right arm and speech." That's -- that's called materialism. But there's another school of thought and that's called dualism.

 

PAT: Uh-huh.

 

FRED LEPORE: Which is somehow mind, consciousness, spirit, soul, you pick out the noun you want there, is separate from the physical substrate of the brain.

 

PAT: Huh. How would that be science, though? Because I mean, I can imagine a school of thought which allows for that, but it feels like you're very quickly stepping out of science if you go that way.

 

FRED LEPORE: Well, yes. Yes. Okay. Probably, you know, see we're all brought up on this thing, when you read anything in the popular press about the brain, they'll show you functional neuroimaging. So when someone talks, the Broca's area, the speech area on the left side of the brain lights up. And you go, "Well, there's your answer! That's the structure, it lights up. That's what's creating language." Except when you deal with the neurophilosophers they say, "Well, we got one problem with that." It's called the hard problem. If you look at that chunk of brain that you're calling Broca's area that lights up when you talk, what exactly is happening there? How does that create -- how does that create a word? Or if you're looking at the occipital lobe and you're looking at the color red, how do you create that qualia, which is a fancy way of saying the sensation of color. We can show you where it is happening, we just can't show you how. We're all looking at the same thing. We're saying somehow if we could get a better handle on the anatomy, maybe we can explain a thought. But we can't explain a thought. I mean, forget -- forget relativity. We can't explain a thought yet.

 

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, EINSTEIN: “It follows from the special theory of relativity that mass and energy are both but different manifestations of the same thing, a somewhat unfamiliar conception for the average mind.]

 

PAT: This episode was reported by Rachael Cusick and me, and produced by Bethel Habte, Rachael and me and Jad Abumrad. Music by Alex Overington. Fact-checking by Michelle Harris. Special thanks to Dustin O’Halloran, Tim Huson, Simon Adler and Minute Physics. Radiolab's G is supported in part by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science. We'll be back in two weeks with episode four of G.

 

[ANSWERING MACHINE: To play the message press two. Start of message.]

 

[ALBERTO MARTINEZ: This is Alberto Martinez in Austin, Texas. Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is produced by Soren Wheeler. Dylan Keefe is our Director of Sound Design. Suzie Lechtenberg is our Executive Producer. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, David Gebel, Bethel Habte, Tracie Hunte, Nora Keller, Matt Kielty, Robert Krulwich, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Malissa O’Donnell, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Shima Oliaee, Audrey Quinn, W. Harry Fortuna, Ruth Samuel, Imani Leonard, and Neel Dhanesha. Our fact checker is Michelle Harris. Thank you very much.]

 

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