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Einstein’s Genius at the 92nd St Y: The Science, the Brain, the Man

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Human genius is a funny thing—even Albert Einstein had his moments of frustration with quantum physics, as Brian Greene and Alan Alda discuss in the above clip from the 2014 World Science Festival program “Dear Albert.” Einstein failed to create a unified theory that would tame the “unruly child” of quantum mechanics, but still, arguably, contributed more to physics than any mind that came before or after.

Just what do Einstein’s accomplishments tell us about the frontiers of human genius? Greene discussed Einstein’s work, brain, and life with news anchor Cynthia McFadden, neurologist Frederick Lepore, and author Thomas Levenson Friday, March 6th as part of 92Y’s 7 Days of Genius Festival.

While Einstein’s most famous scientific feats came in 1905, his “annus mirabilis” or “miracle year,” and 1915, when he promulgated his general theory of relativity, the man never ceased trying to reveal the secrets of reality. Even Einstein’s failures to reach a unified theory of physics yielded great masterworks—while trying to use the math of quantum mechanics to destroy it, Greene pointed out, he stumbled into revealing another strange feature of quantum mechanics: entanglement.

Part of Einstein’s genius, Greene said, was his willingness to buck the establishment: He was “the kind of thinker to throw away the preconceived notions and say, ‘look, the speed of light is constant!’” Contrast that to the academic establishment, then and now, where people might get caught up in trying to please their advisers. Lepore pointed out that Einstein’s years in the patent office, where he was alone with his thoughts and not afforded easy access to libraries stuffed with other theories, may have played a role too. His first manuscripts—all handwritten—were almost totally devoid of references, another behavior that likely wouldn’t fly in modern academia.

“A lot of his thinking was his own thinking,” Lepore said.

Lepore also expanded on the neuroanatomy of Einstein’s brain, which his colleague Dean Falk has analyzed extensively. Einstein’s brain wasn’t bigger than normal, but it did have some features that aren’t quite standard issue. For instance, Einstein had an extra frontal gyrus (a ridge on the cerebral cortex). He also had a larger corpus callosum than most people. This area of the brain, a dense bundle of nerve fibers that connects the left and right hemispheres, is a conduit that helps the different areas of the brain work together. Einstein’s corpus callosum was large not just for a man his age, but for a young man in his prime, suggesting there was some very interesting wiring present.

Levenson cautioned the panel to also consider the whims of history. Had Einstein been born 100 years earlier, in the relatively same social strata, he likely wouldn’t have had access to the education that he needed.

Truly, Einstein’s genius was woven from many threads. “There’s clearly something different about his brain. … There was this wonderful confluence of his own personal history, the kinds of open problems that were available for progress—it was the right moment for thinking about space and time. And he’s got the right attitude,” Greene said.

Check out the whole program below:


This article was updated on 3/6/2015.

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