National Geographic : 2017 May
36 national geographic • may 2017 T he Mütter Museum in Philadelphia houses an array of singular medical specimens. On the lower level the fused livers of 19th-century con- joined twins Chang and Eng float in a glass vessel. Nearby, visitors can gawk at hands swollen with gout, the bladder stones of Chief Justice John Marshall, the cancerous tumor extracted from President Grover Cleve- land’s jaw, and a thighbone from a Civil War sol- dier with the wounding bullet still in place. But there’s one exhibit near the entrance that elicits unmatchable awe. Look closely at the display, and you can see smudge marks left by museum- goers pressing their foreheads against the glass. The object that fascinates them is a small wood- en box containing 46 microscope slides, each displaying a slice of Albert Einstein’s brain. A magnifying glass positioned over one of the slides reveals a piece of tissue about the size of a stamp, its graceful branches and curves resembling an aerial view of an estuary. These remnants of brain tissue are mesmerizing even though—or perhaps because—they reveal little about the physicist’s vaunted powers of cognition. Other displays in the museum show disease and disfigurement—the results of something gone wrong. Einstein’s brain represents potential, the ability of one exceptional mind, one genius, to catapult ahead of everyone else. “He saw differently from the rest of us,” says visitor Karen O’Hair as she peers at the tea-colored sample. “And he could extend beyond that to what he couldn’t see, which is absolutely amazing.” Throughout history rare individuals have stood out for their meteoric contributions to a field. Lady Murasaki for her literary inventiveness. Michelangelo for his masterful touch. Marie Curie for her scientific acuity. “ The genius,” wrote Ger- man philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, “lights on his age like a comet into the paths of the plan- ets.” Consider Einstein’s impact on physics. With no tools at his disposal other than the force of his own thoughts, he predicted in his general theory of relativity that massive accelerating objects— like black holes orbiting each other—would create BY CLAUDIA KALB PHOTOGRAPHS BY PAOLO WOODS n To learn more about Albert Einstein, tune in to National Geographic’s 10-part series Genius, which airs Tuesdays starting April 25.