Einstein’s brain

Everyone always wanted a piece of Albert Einstein (an interview, a quote, a signature, a memento, whatever), and that obsession with him didn’t die when he did either. So great was the mania for anything Einstein that after the man’s death his brain was snatched out of his head like a walnut out of its shell. The brain that had, for almost a half century, dominated physics, disappeared like one of the subatomic particles that had so fascinated it.

One rumor said that someone had dissected the organ and stored it in a garage in Saskatchewan, next to hockey sticks and deflated basketballs. The truth, however, was that–after performing an autopsy on Einstein in 1955 (who died of an aortic aneurysm)–the attending physician, Dr. Thomas Harvey, opened up the corpse’s skull and removed the brain, ostensibly for medical research. The only problem was, the doctor took the brain and never returned it (supposedly, too, Einstein’s ophthalmologist got the eyes, which he would on occasion take out and show around at parties).

“Harvey kept the brain himself,” wrote a journalist about the fate of Einstein’s brain, “not at the hospital but at home, and when he left Princeton he simply took it with him. Year passed. There were no studies or findings. And, in turn, no legal action was brought against Harvey, as there was no precedent in the courts for the recovery of a brain under such circumstances. And then Harvey fell off the radar screen. When he gave an occasional interview–in local newspaper articles from 1956 and 1979 and 1988–he always repeated that he was about ‘a year from finishing study on the specimen.’”1

After holding on to “the specimen” for 40 years, and doing little with it but doling out small pieces to a select few, Dr. Harvey–whose practice sank after it became known what he had done (being a ghoul wasn’t exactly a great medical career move)–made a decision. Now in his 80s and perhaps feeling guilty, he decided to give the brain back to the family, which meant an Einstein granddaughter living in Berkeley, California. Journalist Michael Paterniti, who befriended Dr. Harvey, offered to drive him from the East Coast to Einstein’s granddaughter, and so off they went on a cross-country trip in a Buick Skylark with Einstein’s formaldehyde-soaked brain floating in a Tupperware bowl in the trunk.

Paterniti wrote a book, Driving Mr. Albert, that recounted one of the more unusual road trips in American history: an old guilty doctor, a gifted journalist, and, of course, Albert Einstein’s brains sloshing in the trunk for about 3,000 miles, which (as one could imagine) caused spasms of hoopla along the way.

The most insightful scene, however, came toward the end of trip, when the two men met Einstein’s perplexed granddaughter, Evelyn. Although she knew that they were coming with her famous grandfather’s brain, she wasn’t quite sure what she was supposed to do with it. At one point Evelyn Einstein and Paterniti were sitting in the front seat of the Skylark when he opened the lid to show her Grandpa Albert’s brain.

“I lift the lid, unravel a swath of damp cloth, and then maybe a dozen golf ball-size chunks of the brain spill out–parts of the cerebral cortex and the frontal lobe,” Paterniti wrote. “The smell of formaldehyde smacks us like a backhand. . . . The pieces are sealed in celloidin–the pinkish, liver-colored blobs of brain rimmed by gold wax. I pick some out of the plastic container and hand a few to Evelyn. They feel squishy, weigh about the same as very light beach stones.”

She and Paterniti passed pieces back and foth for a few more moments, and then Evelyn, who remembered her grandfather very well, looked up at Paterniti and said, “So this is what all the fuss is about?” A moment later she fondled another piece and commented, “You could make a nice necklace of this one.”2

Then, calmly, quietly, they placed the pieces back into the Tupperware container and closed the lid on Albert Einstein’s brain.

A matter of fact about the fact of matter

Put aside the weirdness of the scene (sitting in a car with Albert Einstein’s granddaughter and passing around parts of his brain as if they were stolen jewels). Instead, consider the fact that they were holding in their hands the literal (and we mean literal) place that almost three centuries of Newtonian physics were overthrown. Within those “golf ball-size chunks of the brain” the foundation of nuclear physics had been formulated. Somewhere right there, in those “pinkish, liver-colored blobs,” the formula E=mc2 emerged, a concept that changed the world. Those little pieces of matter (no longer gray but pink) pulled the theories of special and then general relativity out of the air, theories that showed that time and space were not absolute but change depending upon the amount of matter involved and the speed of the observer. In short, those few clumps of matter that they held in their hands while sitting in the front seat of a Buick Skylark on a street in Berkeley, California, had created some of the most fascinating and valuable ideas in the history of humanity.

Though the symbolism of the scene presents many possibilities, one is–Could Einstein and all his genius, his ideas, his passions (Albert was somewhat of a Casanova), be limited to this brain matter, to those rills and crevices composed of neurons and fiber? Or could it be restricted to just his entire physical structure–his brain and the rest of his body?

Is that, in the end, all Albert was?

Ultimately, what are any of us, really–purely physical beings, living by physical laws alone, exuding emotions, ideas, art, and creativity the way the stomach secretes peptic acid and the liver bile? Are we, and all that we do and think and create, nothing more than purely physical phenomena, nothing more than the motion of atoms, the synthesis of proteins, the binding or activation of adenylate cyclase, the sequence of ACTH, alpha-MSH, beta_MSH, and beta-lipotropin? Is the question of whom we’ll marry merely different confluences of physical vectors? Could, ideally, everything about us–our thoughts, our desires, our choices–be explained, expressed, and predicted the same way that we can the motions of the stars?

The answer depends on one major question, and that involves our origins. How did we get here, and why? If we’re the products of purely physical forces within a purely physical universe–with nothing existing outside of matter and motion, nothing greater than matter and motion, nothing beyond matter and motion–then how could we be anything other than matter and motion? Could the whole ever be more than the sum of its parts? Of course not, some would argue. Thus, in this view, we are physical processes totally determined by antecedent physical activity, which means that we have no more free will than a windup doll or a computer running a program.

The sentencebodytext

A young man stood before the judge, who had just sentenced him to 10 years in prison. When asked if he had anything to say, the criminal said: “Yes, I do.”

“OK,” the magistrate responded, nodding, “go ahead.”

“Judge,” he asserted, approaching the bench, “how can you in good conscience sentence me to jail? It’s not fair.”

The judge dropped his reading glasses to the end of his nose, looked down at the defendant, and asked, “It’s not?”


“OK, explain.”

“It’s because,” the man said, edging even closer, “from the moment I was born, from my family, from my genes, from my upbringing, from my environment, from my friends–everything predetermined me to a life of crime through no choice of my own. I couldn’t have turned out any differently. I’m no more responsible for my actions than water is for flowing down stream. I had no choice for any of the things I did.”

The judge sat there, silent, pondering. After a few moments, he leaned forward and, speaking directly into the young man’s face, said, “Well, son, I’ll tell you how I can sentence you to 10 years in prison. From the moment I was born, from my family, my genes, my upbringing, my environment–everything that ever happened in my life has forced me, from no choice of my own, to sentence you to these 10 years.”

The judge then slammed down his gavel, and a police officer took the prisoner away.

Organic robots

Are we, then, like that judge and criminal, so totally captive to physical forces that everything we do–from what we eat for breakfast to whom we love–are not really free choices but the inevitable outcome of what came before? However it might otherwise feel, are our “free choices” as predetermined as our DNA? “Everything that happens,” wrote Arthur Schopenhauer, “from the largest to the smallest, happens necessarily.”3 If we take this purely materialistic view of reality, it’s hard to believe otherwise.

On the other hand, if the idea of our existence as being nothing but the random motion of nonrational atoms seems about as adequate as love being nothing but hormonal excretions, then our origins must come from something greater than physical laws, something more than motion and matter. There would have to be a power greater than the mechanical and physical laws that run the universe, something that created not only those laws but along with them our freedom, our creativity, and our capacity to love–aspects of our existence that don’t appear to be defined only by nature’s laws.

And who else–or what else–could that power be, other than God, the Creator? When the Bible says that humanity was made “in the image of God” (Genesis 9:6), this could mean that things such as human freedom, creativity, and love are the manifestation of the character of God Himself. Again, if there is no God who has created a world in which free choice exists, one in which freedom functions at a level beyond the purely physical, then it’s hard to see ourselves as anything but organic robots hard wired with neurons instead of silicon chips.

Which is it?

The answer’s important because within it we can find meaning and purpose to our existence, if any exists at all. After all, it would be hard (though maybe not impossible) to discover much meaning and purpose were we nothing but matter and motion, beings with no control of our thoughts, actions, or choices. (It would be depressing, too, for if we are purely physical processes alone, then we have no choice but to imagine ourselves as free even though we’re really not.) On the other hand, if we’re beings created by a conscious force who has made us free and has given us the capacity to make choices on our own, then our lives can take on a whole new dimension, one infinitely beyond mere physical forces that can no more choose for themselves than the pages of a book can select the words that will go on it.

Again, which is it? Are we mere automatons, or free beings created in the image of a loving God?

This question is just another way of asking, Who are we? What are we? What do our lives mean? Consider these questions in the context of God’s revelation.

And the good news is that you don’t need Einstein’s brain to find or understand the answers, either.

Excerpted from Clifford Goldstein’s latest book, Life Without Limits (Hagerstown, Maryland: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 2007). Used by permission.

Clifford Goldstein is the Director of the Adult Bible Study Guide at the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist headquarters at Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A., and is the author of some 20 books and numerous articles. His email is goldstein@gc.adventist.org.


  1. Michael Paterniti, Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein’s Brain (New York: Random House, 2000), p. 24.
  2. Ibid., p. 194.
  3. Arthur Schopenhauer, Essay on the Freedom of the Will (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2005), p. 62.