Taking shots from Einstein’s brain

09.11, Thursday 3 Jun 2021

I knew the beginning bit of this story from Joshua Cohen. I didn’t know the end.

When Einstein died, IN 1955, his brain was removed during an unsanctioned autopsy at a hospital in Princeton.

From there, a pathologist named Thomas Stoltz Harvey sliced it up but kept some for himself. He moved to Kansas, and gave one of the slivers to William S. Burroughs. Who died in 1997, and the sliver was passed to… Cohen demurs, because of this:

Let’s just say that when I was in Lawrence, teaching at KU, this was a thing that still happened, a hazing that was also an homage: You scooped the bit of Einstein’s brain out of the jar and shook off the excess formaldehyde; then, you put some salt in the crook of your thumb and licked it, after which you took down a shot of cheap room-temperature tequila and sucked on the brain-bit until your mouth went numb-until the formaldehyde paralyzed your lips and tongue and you couldn’t be understood, you couldn’t even feel yourself trying to make language.

My question is, given the moment and the opportunity, what would you do?

There’s an element of magic about this. Einstein’s brain is sacred, somehow, it has a kind of power, because of its association with Albert Einstein himself and his actions when alive.

Clearly I wouldn’t shoot tequila from just anyone’s brain. And there’s no actual eating going on. It’s not cannibalism. But if it was, say, Einstein’s sock I would most likely decline. In this particular case… probably?

So what we’re saying is that there’s a magical power, which has a force. And then there are forces that counter that force: natural disgust, effort made for the opportunity, and so on. The rest of the discussion is about constant factors and polynomials: what is the formula of the magical force? It feels like this could be an empirical investigation, which is how all scientific breakthroughs begin.

Now this is maybe an unexpected direction to take this post but, as a student, ex-PM David Cameron famously put his unmentionables into the mouth of a dead pig.

This is, at best, type 2 fun. And the question is, what wins out? The disgust at the act? Or the thought: “but yeah then I could say I did.” To put it another way, making use of the pig’s head is a magical act that generates status and power. Like, clearly you would feel like you had crossed some kind of threshold – to have done what others had not! And that internal knowledge will, by association, in the future make it possible for you to cross other thresholds that others could not. Magic!

I have to say, I think if the opportunity came up, I might do the same. I think many people felt the same way, which is why - when the story came out in 2015 and many people mocked him about it - ultimately it did Cameron no harm.

There’s a famous quote from comedian Billy Connolly: Never trust a man who, when left alone in a room with a tea cosy, doesn’t try it on.

Same same?

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.

😴