Magazine article The Spectator

Brain Power

Magazine article The Spectator

Brain Power

Article excerpt

It has been Einstein week on television - the 50th anniversary of his death, and the centenary of the theory of relativity. This has handed producers a problem as knotty in its way as proving that e=mc^sup 2^. How on earth do you put the most important yet the most incomprehensible scientific thought of the past century on to our screens without, for instance, having Davina McCall come on to yell at the top of her voice that gravity is the consequence of a curvature in space/time?

In The Riddle of Einstein's Brain Channel 4 found a novel way round it. They didn't concentrate on what Einstein's brain came up with, but on the brain itself. This had been neatly removed by the pathologist who carried out the post-mortem, purely in the interests of scientific research. Though Dr Tom Harvey came to be regarded as a Frankenstein figure, or possibly his hunch-backed assistant Igor, he made chunks of the brain available to anyone with a genuine need for research purposes. He would slice bits off and dish them out, rather like cutting brownies from a baking tray. One woman, Professor Marian Diamond, formed the theory that Einstein might have had more glial cells than the rest of us. Glial cells are the brain's other ranks, scampering round the skull in a host of supportive roles - chiefly protecting, nurturing and connecting the officers, or neurons.

Dr Harvey sent her four bits of brain in the post, carefully wrapped in an empty jar of Miracle Whip. It's lucky the jar had been well cleaned; imagine if someone concluded that the secret of Einstein's amazing intellect was that his brain contained higher than normal quantities of local mayonnaise. As it was, Professor Diamond discovered that Einstein had noticeably more glial cells than the rest of us, which was worth knowing. Expect to see ads on Channel 4 soon, in which pert young persons drink health yoghurts 'enriched with glial cells, the friendly cells that make you smarter. Five flavours, including new winter fruits.'

There were other theories. Possibly Einstein was autistic, which is associated with phenomenol powers of concentration. Or his brain was packed tighter than other people's, which in some mysterious way allowed him to make connections which would elude us. These theories were tossed around by two British fellow-my-lad type scientists who were engaged in one of those fake American road trips in which you fly to a stretch of tarmac and drive half a mile followed by the camera car, to symbolise a cross-continental journey. …

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