Why Einstein is so famous

Why did Einstein’s fame burn brighter than any other scientist’s? This article in the New Yorker from 1933 explains it:

The chief agent in making Einstein the idol of the masses was Carr V. Van Anda, the great editor of the period. Van Anda had a genius for compelling millions to make his hobbies their hobbies. Ten years ago, for example, the average American became an amateur Egyptologist because Van Anda was an amateur Egyptologist. Starting with a routine dispatch telling of some promising excavations at Thebes, Van Anda filled the New York Times with endless columns about the Egypt of three thousand years ago and made Tut-ankh-Amen a household word. It had long been one of Van Anda’s journalistic hunches that an unlooted tomb of ancient Egypt would be discovered some day; it was another of his hunches that a flaw might be found in the Newtonian theory. He had learned to read hieroglyphics and had devoted himself to higher mathematics, so that he was thoroughly prepared to exploit both hunches. On the announcement that the relativity theory had been confirmed, he opened all the floodgates of publicity on Einstein. The pages of the Times in Van Anda’s day had the same authority with the journalistic profession that the sacred gold plates had among the Mormons of Joseph Smith’s day. The entire American press was soon struggling to explain relativity; the country weeklies held Einstein orgies patterned after the Einstein orgies in the Times. The European press got much of its interest in relativity by way of America, and even today the name of Einstein retains on this side of the Atlantic its peculiar rallying power as the battle cry of the culture-seeker.

It also paints a delightfully goofy portrait of the man:

When a magazine offered him an amazing sum for an article, he rejected it contemptuously. “What?” he exclaimed. “Do they think I am a prizefighter?” But he finally wrote the article after arguing the magazine into cutting the price in half. It is said that he declined his present post at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton on the ground that the salary was preposterously munificent, and was persuaded to accept only by the promise of an enormous pay cut…

Presented by Lord Haldane to the Royal Society in England as a man of unparalleled intellectual boldness, Einstein found himself intimidated by the livery of the Haldane retainers. “He is too formidable,” said the Professor later at the Haldane place, when Mrs. Einstein wanted to summon the butler to fix a window…

The Professor and his wife were both bewildered by the barbaric hospitality which overwhelmed them on their earlier visits to [America]. They agreed that they must blindly accept whatever occurred to them in this bizarre republic; at a dinner in Cleveland, Mrs. Einstein, shrugging her shoulders at what appeared to be an elegant American eccentricity, ate a bouquet of orchids which she found on what seemed to be a salad plate.

No, Einstein was not smart because his brain was ‘well-connected’

 People will never tire of hearing how smart that Einstein fellow was. And following logically from that, apparently, is the truism that people will never tire of hearing about Einstein’s brain. This organ is so fascinating that it has it’s own wikipedia page full of information gleaned by its examination after it was stolen from the dear genius’ head (before being lost and then found again). And every so often a new study will exclaim about the extravagant protrusion arising from one portion of it or another leading to a series of silly articles in the popular press claiming the secret to Einstein’s smarts.

The latest explanations come from – I shit you not – a series of fourteen recently discovered photographs taken when Einstein’s brain was being sectioned. No, they did not actually examine his brain, they just looked at some photos and called it a day. Now, they’re examining these pictures and looking for things that are different about his brain from other brains, things that are known to change with recent experience and age, and they find certain areas that are larger than average or strange or so on and so forth. And they find certain things look different: “Although the overall size and asymmetrical shape of Einstein’s brain were normal, the prefrontal, somatosensory, primary motor, parietal, temporal and occipital cortices were extraordinary.”

We are now forced to wonder not just how a 76-year old Einstein’s brain was different from his youthful 20-year old self but also why we should be giving these differences credit for his intelligence rather than for his, say, keen ability at sailing. Did his engorged motor cortex really make him so smart?

The big problem here is the signal-to-noise. The thing about every person having a different brain is that every person will have something unique about their brain. Ascribing a single salient characteristic about a person, especially as an audience to a historical figure, to what is non-average about their brain is absurd. Einstein was more than just a physics-solving machine and the size of any part of his brain may have played very little role in his intelligence (or it may have: who knows).

And all this is neglecting the fact that what made him so special may be nothing at all about the hardware of his brain instead of the software of his mind (so to speak).

The truth is, we will never know what was special about Einstein by studying pictures of his brain and I can think of little that it will tell us beyond how easy it is to get a popular press article written about anything to do with Einstein. Instead, read about what psychology tells us about learning and motivation. Read what neuroscience tells us about the same. They have lots to say; the brain of Einstein does not, and never will.

Update – As pointed out to me by Alice Proverbio, Einstein was also a violinist and musicians are known to have a thicker corpus callosum, something never mentioned in the paper… Just highlighting how silly it is to pluck one aspect of a person (intelligence) and project onto it whatever oddities you find!


Men W, Falk D, Sun T, Chen W, Li J, Yin D, Zang L, & Fan M (2013). The corpus callosum of Albert Einstein’s brain: another clue to his high intelligence? Brain : a journal of neurology PMID: 24065724

Falk, D, Lepore, FE, & Noe, A (2013). The cerebral cortex of Albert Einstein: a description and preliminary analysis of unpublished photographs Brain : a journal of neurology DOI: 10.1093/brain/aws295

Yes now we are ALL geniuses

Steampunk inventions

A recent meme in the intellectual blogosphere is The Great Stagnation: that we are in a period of falling innovation and the world is suffering as a consequence.  People love to ask, why is it so hard to be truly innovative?  And now Nature is getting in on the action!

I have devoted more than three decades to studying scientific genius, the highest level of scientific creativity. The creative scientist contributes ideas that are original and useful. The scientific genius, however, offers ideas that are original, useful and surprising. Such momentous leaps — be they theories, discoveries or inventions — are not just extensions of already-established, domain-specific expertise: the scientific genius conceives of a novel expertise.

…Geniuses have played a decisive part in science in two main ways. First, they have founded new scientific disciplines, such as Galileo’s creation of telescopic astronomy. Second, geniuses have revolutionized established disciplines. Charles Darwin, for instance, proposed that species evolve by natural selection at a time when many biologists believed that life forms were fixed from the moment of Biblical creation.

…Yet, in my view, neither discipline creation nor revolution is available to contemporary scientists…The days when a doctoral student could be the sole author of four revolutionary papers while working full time as an assistant examiner at a patent office — as Einstein did in 1905 — are probably long gone. Natural sciences have become so big, and the knowledge base so complex and specialized, that much of the cutting-edge work these days tends to emerge from large, well-funded collaborative teams involving many contributors.

Can we all see how many things are just bafflingly wrong about this?  Let’s get the Einstein scapegoat out of the way first.  Einstein was a theoretical physicist.  This meant the entire resources required of him were pen, paper, and mind.  He never did an experiment in his life (okay, he kind of did one); why would he need to work in a large, well-funded collaborative team?  The “cutting-edge work” that happens in these teams is experimental in origin and gives rise to data.  Fortunately, there are still theoreticians whiling away their hours to create theoretical frameworks for that data (even in biology)!  The capital equipment required for contemporary numerical simulations is relatively cheap and getting cheaper.  Even the cheapest computer these days is mind-bogglingly powerful, and if you need it access to a cluster or cloud can be cheaply subcontracted out to Amazon.  I’m sure we can list the geniuses that came after Einstein: Feynman and Hawking in physics, surely, and I’d count Hodgkin and Huxley in neuroscience for sure.  Do Turing and Von Neumann count? I’m guessing every field has their geniuses that get passed by unnoticed by the rest of us.

And then we have geniuses like Darwin.  How do we compare him to someone like the cruelly-neglected Alfred Russel Wallace?  Ideas come in bursts because the world is prepared for them.  Inventions like the telegraph and radio were invented simultaneously across the world.  Much of relativity was presaged by the work of Poincare.

The problem is not that geniuses don’t exist, it’s that revolutionary ideas are taken in, repackaged, and improved upon with unprecedented speed.  Channelrhodopsin was invented just years ago, and now it’s almost a standard technique; the idea has been extended to thermal activation of neurons in flies, and the world is ready to move on to the next big thing (clarity?).  Revolution has been forgotten as revolutionary, genius left behind in a trail of papers.