- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 29, 2002

Albert Einstein's brain produced some of the most important ideas of the 20th century, and when he died in 1955 a number of people could not bear the thought that the incomparable organ should be cremated along with the rest of his body. Carolyn Abraham's Possessing Genius: The Bizarre Odyssey of Einstein's Brain (St. Martin's, $24.95, 374 pages) is the result of several years of research aimed at finding out exactly what happened to the brain during its almost half century of post-mortem obscurity. It is an engrossing tale, full of descriptions of sometimes gruesome medical procedures and colorful accounts of diverse personalities.
The author tells us that while Einstein had long insisted that his body be cremated, he agreed a short time before his death that scientists should be allowed to study his brain if they thought it a worthwhile exercise. This proposal was made by Dr. Harry Zimmerman, a neurologist and the first head of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, who also persuaded Einstein to allow the new medical school to use his name. Immediately after Einstein's death in Princeton Hospital, the brain was extracted and embalmed by the hospital's pathologist, Thomas Stolz Harvey, the chief pathologist.
When Einstein's son, Hans Albert, learned that the entire body had not been cremated, he was very upset, but Dr. Harvey calmed him down by promising that the brain would only be used for scientific study. By coincidence, Dr. Harvey, a former student of Zimmerman's, called him shortly after the autopsy, promising him that he would send him the organ. However, after slicing and dicing the brain into 240 pieces, from some of which a lab at the University of Pennsylvania produced 2,000 thin slices mounted on microscope slides and stored in 10 boxes, Dr. Harvey sent Zimmerman one box, and kept most of the organ for himself.
The story of the brain is basically the history of Dr. Harvey's life and wanderings through the second half of the twentieth century. Over the years from 1955 to 1995, he occasionally distributed parts of the brain to researchers of his own choice, based in large measure on random reading and personal whims. Most of the recipients had little interest in studying the organ, and after accepting their unexpected gifts, left them to languish on their shelves.
In 1960, the Princeton hospital administration, concerned over Dr. Harvey's marital problems, sought to dismiss him, using as an excuse his lack of progress in studying the brain. Dr. Harvey, a Quaker pacifist, left rather than fight. He left his wife, married again and raised a new family and took a series of jobs in different parts of New Jersey. In 1972, he moved to Wichita, Kan., working simultaneously as a pathologist and a physician.
After his second wife left him, he remarried again and opened a medical practice on Weston, Mo. His willingness to take on extra obligations led his assistant to describe him as "the kindest, most generous and gentle man I'd ever met" but left him little time to do any brain research. By his 80th birthday, Dr. Harvey's third wife had left him, he was no longer allowed to practice medicine after just failing to pass a required licensing exam in North Carolina, and was living in poverty, working in a plastics factory in Kansas, where he was the hardest worker in the plant.
In the mid 1990s, he relocated back to New Jersey, where his first wife turned down his request that they reunite, and moved in with a divorcee 20 years his junior. And he returned the brain to Princeton Hospital, whose current pathologist is now its guardian.
Some research was actually performed over the 45-year period of Dr. Harvey's odyssey. In the mid-1980's, Marian Diamond, a professor of neuroanatomy at the University of California, Berkeley, persuaded Dr. Harvey to send her part of the brain, and she published a paper reporting that its left parietal lobe had a superabundance of glial cells that help neurons connect with each other. Then, in 1999, a Canadian researcher, Sandra Witelson, published another much-publicized study finding that the parietal lobes were larger than usual and that a feature called the Sylvian fissure was anomalously small. Many critics disputed the significance of these findings.

In How the Universe Got Its Spots (Princeton University Press, $22.95, 199 pages) Janna Levin demonstrates that living brains can also undergo bizarre journeys. The author, an Advanced Fellow in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University, who earned her Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is one of the bright young stars of cosmology. Her book, written as a series of letters to her mother, provides a popular account of current theories of the origin and development of the universe. Its central focus is the idea that the universe may be finite, which means that light rays arriving at the earth may be coming from the same source in two (or more) directions.
If this is so, it may be possible to determine the shape and size of the universe by sophisticated analyses that compare the images of seemingly different celestial sources in different parts of the sky.
Interspersed with the science is a discussion of the author's personal affairs as she moves around between September, 1998, and January, 2001, between California, Cambridge, London and other spots on the itinerary of the international scientist of the jet age. The account of her relationship with Warren, her live-in boyfriend, a no-hoper musician with whom she eventually breaks up, perhaps explains why these letters were never mailed to her mother. Instead of including them in the book, she might better have made a phone call to Dr. Laura, who is used to counseling bright women who are dim bulbs emotionally.

In A Brain for All Seasons (University of Chicago Press, $25, 352 pages) William H. Calvin expounds his sweeping theory of how the human brain came to be the way it is. Dr. Calvin is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Washington in Seattle, and his book combines evolutionary thinking about human origins with an extensive discussion of climate change. In a nutshell, he believes that the human brain was forced to develop because of the tendency of the earth to undergo frequent and drastic environmental change, descending within a few decades from a hospitable climate to a hostile deep freeze.
Dr. Calvin argues that homo sapiens and its putative forebears, which had to struggle for survival against bigger and more numerous species, more directly adapted to their environments. This struggle was won by the few survivors with the most flexible brains, who learned how to use them creatively to adapt to their surroundings.
The threat that most alarms Dr. Calvin, based on evidence of historical climate change, is that a sudden change in ocean currents could cut off the transport of heat from the tropics to the northern polar region. This would cause the formation of giant ice sheets that would reflect solar heat back into space, producing a rapid and self-reinforcing cooling trend.
Paradoxically, this course of events could be initiated by global warming. Fortunately, the computer climate models that encourage this fear deserve less credence than Dr. Calvin gives them.

Jeffrey Marsh has written widely on scientific topics ranging from nuclear strategy to social policy.

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