Have Brain, Will Travel

The epic of Albert Einstein’s brain is a macabre and yet captivating tribute to the cultural impact of “the father of modern physics”.

The story began in 1955, seven hours after Einstein’s death. The attending pathologist who was scheduled to perform the autopsy, Thomas Stoltz Harvey, looking over the body of the embodiment of genius in the 20th century, decided, it is said, that it would be a greater gift to posterity if he took the brain without the family’s permission. While he was at it, he also gave Einstein’s eyes to the physicists optometrist.

Certain that the brain would provide endless opportunities for scientists to look into the stuff of brilliance, Harvey eventually lost almost everything in his efforts to keep it in his possession: his job, his marriage, his house. Striped of these potentially stabilizing factors, he began traveling around America with the brain in the back of his car trying to find people who would appreciate his “gift to science”.

This fact was not widely known until 1978 when a journalist “broke” the story and interviewed the now aged pathologist.

Today a part of Einstein’s brain is in Ontario, most of it was returned to Princeton, but Harvey sent samples to over a dozen different specialists during the time when he was its keeper.

While we don’t often admit it to ourselves, the contemporary fetishization of knowledge has allowed the organ of the intellect to take on an uncanny quality, at once grotesque, and yet captivating. The greater we value the intellect of the person, an associate that intangible quality with the meaty substance of the brain, the grater power the messy physicality of their brain takes on in our imagination. Harvey’s seemingly irrational actions can be seen in this light to be an extreme manifestation of the cult of scientific genius that evolved around Einstein and his accomplishments, and can not be separated from the same impulse that has motivated generations of Catholics to preserve the relics of their own saints.

Not seen in these saintly terms, Harvey died in 2007, and his brain, to the best of my knowledge, was laid to rest with him.

Einstein’s Brain:

For More Information:






Paterniti, Michael. 2001. Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America With Einstein’s Brain. Dial Press Trade Paperback.

Carolyn Abraham, Possessing Genius: The Bizarre Odyssey of Einstein’s Brain.

(For another scientific relic, see Galileo’s finger: http://www2.jpl.nasa.gov/galileo/finger.html)

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/talking-back/2012/11/16/einsteins-brain-more-special-than-we-ever-knew/ (New!)

The Atomic Heart of Japanese Robotics

Japanese culture has been one of the major “alternative” imports into the west for the past several years. Their view of A.I. and humanoid robots is refreshingly different from that of the western traditions of Frankenstein, the Christian Golem (unlike the Jewish Golem), and the Matrix.

One of my earliest introductions to the east and robotics was in the form of Astro Boy, the boy with the atomic heart. I was too young to see it at the time, but the show must have clearly resonated with its Japanese audience, the only people who have actually had atomic weapons used against them. It’s hard to overstate the effects that this historical event seems to have had on the Japanese relationship to technology, and their desire to give it a human face in literature, art, and reality.

It is even more interesting juxtaposed, as it often is, to the Japanese dystopia in which the machines often take on a more human character than the humans themselves. Take for instance the manga Battle Angel Alita by Yukito Kishiro, for which the question of humanity is an overarching theme. The main character is a human brain in a mechanical body, while several of the characters are human brains stored in computer chips and placed within human bodies. Questions of essential personality, indeed, essential humanity, get even more tangled in the light of amnesia, intentional and not, dream worlds, multiple personalities and the concept of storing human memory.

Despite the manga’s occasional turn to what I call “splorching” (excessively pressurized human gore often seen in Japanese media) and often taboo subject matter, the series still has a lot of heart to offer curious readers.

A Tale of Two Alchemists

The story of Isaac Newton’s alchemical concerns is a relativity recent, but already much explored facet of the father of modern physics. Yes, he was predicting when the world would end using heretical biblical exegesis. Yes, he was trying to spiritualize matter. The “occult” quality of gravity was actually informed by the occult, and his contemporaries were completely justified in criticizing it as such.

Yet what is more interesting to me is how Newton’s alchemical project compares to that of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s. Goethe as a young man, ostensibly a poet and man of letters at this time of his life, went through several years of intensive alchemical study and experimentation. And yet over time he became increasingly critical of the material truth of his project, calling it a “beautiful idea” and instead dedicated a reasonable part of his later intellectual activity to elucidating its spiritual truth.

Thus we have a state in which Newton, the “great” of British science, clung to a literal view of his alchemical work, while Goethe, viewed by some historians of science as a mere dilettante, tried its truths and rejected their materiality, opting instead to focus on the power of the ideas themselves.

The matter becomes only more interesting if you consider the opposition of Goethe’s and Newton’s optics. But that is a story for another time.

Resources of Interest:

Gray, Ronald D. Goethe the Alchemist: A study of Alchemical Symbolism in Goethe’s Literary and Scientific Works. Connecticut: Martino Publishing, 2002.

Jantz. Harold. “Goethe, Faust, Alchemy, and Jung” in The German Quarterly, Vol. 35,No. 2 (Mar., 1962), pp. 129-141.

Raphael, Alice. Goethe and the Philosophers’ Stone: Symbolic Patterns in ‘The Parable’ and the Second Part of ‘Faust’. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965.


The Galathea Expedition: On the Tail of a Sea Serpent

Regardless of when the existence of giant deep sea creatures was first confirmed beyond all doubt. There was, and still is, an effort made to understand the myths and legends of sea monsters as being either large cephalopods, or some other deep sea creature. One of the most notable expeditions in the history of deep sea biology was that of the Galathea 2, mounted between 1950 and 1952 by Anton Bruun “with the serious purpose of testing his theory that such creatures [as sea serpents] do in fact exist”.

The expedition, like most in the history of the marine sciences, rested upon a tripod of nationalism, scientific and personal curiosity. These three components are hinted at, some more strongly than others, among the expedition’s objectives enumerated by Bruun in The Galathea Deep Sea Expedition 1950-1952, a popularization of the Galathea’s mission published in 1956. They were to search for large deep sea fish and cephalopods, spread a knowledge of Danish culture and economic life, and, primarily: “explore the ocean trenches in order to find out whether life occurred under the extreme conditions prevailing there – and if so to what extent”.

The image of the sea serpent provided a convenient link between the scientific and nationalistic motivations for the expedition. At the heart of this media campaign was the writer and journalist Hakon Mielche. In the introductory essay of The Galathea Deep Sea Expedition, R. Spärck mentions Mielche’s importance to the expedition, writing: “in 1941 Dr. Anton Bruun gave a lecture on the possibility of the existence of sea serpents, and a report of it was read by the author Hakon Mielche. Mr. Mielche approached Dr. Bruun, and the idea of the Galathea Expedition grew out of their talks”. More than this, it was Mielche who used the image of the sea serpent to provide political and scientific justifications for the project. Though he, unlike Bruun, didn’t appear to have serious intentions of discovering the sea serpent in the deep waters of the world, having later written in his memoirs:

And the sea monster? I’m sorry, I almost forgot. But it had done its full duty by the time we took off. It was the catalyst that got the whole idea going. I assume full responsibility for the exploitation of the poor little thing. But Bruun believed that one day it would be found – and he stood firm until the day he died.

Inside the visitor’s book aboard the Galathea, Mielche had drawn two illustrations of the sea serpent, the last one showing it waving goodbye to the visitors. This picture was placed on the same page as the Danish king’s signature. Thus the very image of the sea serpent proved to be a powerful political tool for the organization, funding and popular support of the expedition.

As has already been noted, however, Bruun’s hopes for finding something actually resembling a sea serpent were more sincere than Mielche’s. Bruun was certain that the strange appearances of deep sea creatures would look like those of sea monsters to those unfamiliar with them, and hoped to find the origin of the sea serpent myth in deep sea biology. Yet it is also apparent that Bruun wished to downplay his search for sea serpents after the Galathea expedition had finished its voyage.

Another essay in The Galathea Deep Sea Expedition by H. Volsøe, the expedition’s resident expert on sea snakes, also downplays the serpentine inspiration for the voyage, stating that in the course of his work: “It was necessary to put on a serious scientific face

in order to convince [people] that there really are such creatures [as sea snakes] and that they probably have nothing at all to do with the Great Sea Serpent which obviously underlay their skepticism”, at which point Volsøe puts the topic to rest until the very end of his essay in which he states that the sea snakes are most likely not the model for “the countless reports of the Great Sea Serpent” owing to their relatively small size.

Despite this there is one place where Bruun’s disappointment can still be seen. In his discussion of Galatheathauma axeli, he comments that it is “unquestionably the strangest catch of the Galathea Expedition, and altogether one of the oddest creatures in the teeming variety of the fish world. But we caught only one, right at the end of the cruise, and still no one has caught the Great Sea Serpent”. This seems to have been all of Bruun’s comments about the “Great Sea Serpent” after the expedition, a notion which nevertheless formed the early heart of its inspiration.

From: Nielsen, Kristian Hvidtfelt. In Search of the Sea Monster. (Endeavour, vol. 30. 2006)

For more information:




Idyll, C.P. Abyss: The Deep Sea and the Creatures That Live in It.

Bruun, A. F. “Objectives of the Expedition”, in The Galathea Deep Sea Expedition: 1950-1952. ed. Bruun, Anton F., Sv. Greve, Hakon Mielche and Ragnar Spärck. (London: George Allen and Unwin LTD, 1956.)

—, “Animal Life of the Sea Bottom”, in The Galathea Deep Sea Expedition: 1950-1952. ed. Bruun, Anton F., Sv. Greve, Hakon Mielche and Ragnar Spärck. (London: George Allen and Unwin LTD, 1956.)

Nielsen, Kristian Hvidtfelt. In Search of the Sea Monster. (Endeavour, vol. 30. 2006)

Spärck, R. “Background and Origin of the Expedition”, in The Galathea Deep Sea Expedition: 1950-1952. ed. Bruun, Anton F., Sv. Greve, Hakon Mielche and Ragnar Spärck. (London: George Allen and Unwin LTD, 1956.)

Volsøe, H. “Sea Snakes”, in The Galathea Deep Sea Expedition: 1950-1952. ed. Bruun, Anton F., Sv. Greve, Hakon Mielche and Ragnar Spärck. (London: George Allen and Unwin LTD, 1956.)