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Summer reading, science style

BENEDETTO CRISTOFANI/SALZMANART

Fearing career repercussions, a theoretical physicist calls out a growing crisis. Setting aside DNA for the filing cabinet, a historian unearths a radically new history of human genetics. Pondering the anatomical correlates of human intelligence, a neurologist searches for Einstein’s brain. From an eye-opening tour of bioluminescence to an idiosyncratic history of energy, this year’s summer reading picks are chock full of thoughtful research and passionately argued perspectives. Savor a round-the-world search for the origins of wine. Dive below the ocean’s waves, where fish—some familiar, some outrageous, and some imaginary—shimmer and shoal. Time travel through the Solar System or tag along on a quest to find long-missing shipwrecks.

Listen to a preview of the summer books section below, or read on for the full reviews.


Energy: A Human History

Energy: A Human History

Richard Rhodes
Simon & Schuster
2018
464 pp
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Motivated by the climate change crisis, Richard Rhodes’s Energy: A Human History sets out on a historical tour of how humans have manipulated nature to lift, transport, heat, and illuminate things over the past four centuries. Rhodes brings the same storytelling finesse to this work that he brought to his 1986 Pulitzer Prize–winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb, as well as the conviction that nuclear power is the solution for moving humankind away from fossil fuels. Accordingly, Energy is both a work of history and a passionately written moral tale.

Rhodes excels at exploring lesser-known tales, technologies, and cultural connections that do not often find places in traditional stories about energy, the environment, and climate change. He starts the book’s first section, “Power,” for example, by explaining that a great shortage of wood in late-16th-century England compelled Shakespeare and his colleagues to steal the materials used to build the Globe Theatre.

From the Bard, Rhodes moves to industrious English landowners who began to exploit exposed coal faces for energy in the early 17th century. Soon, wagonways with wooden rails sprang up to transport the bulky fuel. As miners followed coal seams deep underground, inventors experimented with coal-fired engines to pump water out of flooded shafts. Rhodes spends time with major figures like Thomas Newcomen and James Watt but also considers key tinkerers, such as Richard Trevithick, who helped make steam engines useful for transportation.

In the book’s second section, “Light,” Rhodes considers an array of 19th-century fuels and technologies that banished nighttime darkness. He turns to William “Uncle Billy” Smith, who engineered the first purpose-drilled oil well in the United States at Oil Creek, Pennsylvania, in 1859. Like coal before it, oil required new techniques for transport. Barrels from breweries and distilleries loaded aboard barges did the job.

Oil took its place alongside coal and, eventually, so did electricity. Westinghouse’s station at Niagara Falls began generating hydroelectric power in 1895. Although water produced clean energy, Rhodes concludes his discussion of the 19th century with a dark turn, describing the smoke and caustic pollution that fouled the era’s cities.

In the final section, “New fires,” Rhodes introduces newer technologies, such as the internal combustion engine. Here, he describes how Thomas Midgley Jr. first added lead to gasoline in 1921. The additive improved engine performance but proved deadly to workers who synthesized it at Standard Oil and DuPont. Another energy source, another pollutant.

Rhodes closes the section with new problems (e.g., photochemical smog and greenhouse gases) and new potential paths forward (e.g., nuclear, wind, and solar technologies). Only nuclear energy, he argues, can provide a workable and sustainable replacement for fossil fuels. Wind and solar energy aren’t practical because they simply won’t produce enough energy for the increasingly large and wealthy global population. But his cavalier treatment of nuclear disasters and the radioactive waste problem fails to commend the atom as a green energy.

Nevertheless, Rhodes’s hope that a critical look at past energy technologies will benefit those of the future is heartening. May this come to pass.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of History, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA.


Eye of the Shoal

Eye of the Shoal: A Fishwatcher’s Guide to Life, the Ocean and Everything

Helen Scales
Bloomsbury Sigma
2018
320 pp.
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The first time Helen Scales watched fish in the wild, she wasn’t expecting to be impressed. Fifteen years old and on a family holiday in California, she was more concerned with spotting a sea otter. Peering from a high bluff south of Monterey Bay, however, she was captivated by what she saw: fish of all shapes and sizes, mesmerizing, complex, and beautiful.

Today an author, marine biologist, and avid scuba diver, Scales’s latest book, Eye of the Shoal, takes readers on a discovery of the aquatic realm and its incredible ichthyological inhabitants. “How do shoaling fish avoid bumping into each other?” she asks and then sets out to answer. “How do they avoid the jaws of fast-thinking predators? How do thousands of fish species get along when they live in crowded places, like the Great Lakes of Africa and the Amazon basin? What do fish do when their water dries up?”

We journey from the depths of the oceans to shallow pools in the middle of America’s Death Valley to the frozen Antarctic oceans, all the while discussing fishes weird and wonderful. These include mighty whale sharks reaching up to 20 meters in length and tiny tiddlers measuring a mere 8 millimeters; icefish, which make their own antifreeze, and anglerfish that bioluminesce; the recently rediscovered coelacanth and the quickly evolving cichlids of the African Great Lakes.

To understand what it means to be a fish, one has to understand where they came from. In a chapter entitled “A view from the deep – introducing the fish,” Scales breaks down the fish evolutionary tree, simplifying a sometimes complex and difficult-to-understand concept in a way that is accessible to the layman, all while maintaining factual integrity.

Scales’s genuine appreciation and awe for fish are contagious. She continually entices the reader by introducing exciting aspects of fish in each chapter. “Outrageous acts of colour” discusses the multitude of color adaptations that fishes have evolved, whereas “Illuminations” dives into the depths of the oceans, discussing bioluminescence, a trait among vertebrates that is unique to fish.

Interspersed throughout are traditional tales of fishy folklore from all over the world, highlighting the deep-rooted and sometimes conflicting feelings people have toward these ocean occupants. In 16th-century Iceland, for example, the rare vatnagedda, a flaming golden flounder, was thought to protect against evil spirits and powerful ghosts and could only be caught using gold as bait while wearing a pair of gloves made of human skin. The Inuit people venerate and fear “Sedna,” a being with the body of a woman and the tail of a fish. Should the Inuit people need more animals to eat, a shaman must transform himself into a fish and swim down to Sedna so he can comb the tangles from her hair. In return, she releases more animals the people can hunt.

After reading this book, you might be inspired to immerse yourself in the nearest watery realm. While there, you’ll likely find that you are well prepared to appreciate the ichthyological inhabitants for what they are—weird, wonderful, and whimsical.

About the author

The reviewer is at the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity, Grahamstown, 6139, South Africa.


The Shipwreck Hunter

The Shipwreck Hunter: A Lifetime of Extraordinary Discoveries on the Ocean Floor

David L. Mearns
Pegasus
2018
416 pp.
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In his memoir The Shipwreck Hunter, David Mearns invites readers to travel along on seven of the most exciting and meaningful investigations of his 21 (and counting) career major shipwreck finds.

In chapters bearing their names, Mearns’s thoughtful and detailed account chronologically traces each shipwreck, sharing vivid stories of every vessel from design to demise. The rich historical details and singular characters offer at least one chapter for everyone: from the murderous plot aboard MV Lucona to the World War II battles of HMAS Sydney; from the haunting rescue efforts that followed the sinking of TSS Athenia to the piratical actions aboard Esmeralda. Amid these tales, Mearns conveys equal zeal for the competitive bidding process that pushes deep-sea recovery technologies forward and the suspenseful technological glitches that can affect the ability to gather video footage of the wrecks.

Mearns makes the acoustic and robotic technologies used to detect and explore deep-sea wrecks accessible by describing the systems in use. Newcomers and experienced sonar operators alike will feel the frustration of willing the SM-30 sonar to work and the excitement of seeing the outer edge of a debris field, where items—once a part of a vessel and voyage—are today, harbingers of a shipwreck location. His sonar and remotely operated vehicle (ROV) demonstrations are interspersed with raw recollections of shipwreck survivors, introspective moments, and personal anecdotes.

A repeated theme in the text is the meticulous work necessary to refine high-probability search areas. Whether decoding secret notations in a German-English dictionary, determining how an oil slick would spread from a sinking vessel, or interviewing scores of witnesses to an offshore submarine attack, the confined bibliography of the memoir belies the depth and breadth of archival, navigational, weather, and witness-testimony research and data revealed in the narrative.

The book links each discovery to the broader importance that investigating shipwrecks has today: prosecuting murderers with MV Lucona; improving safety for seamen with MV Derbyshire; creating memorials for grieving survivors and families of HMS Hood, KTB Bismarck, HMAS Sydney, HSK Kormoran, and AHS Centaur; and the documentation of maritime history with Portuguese nau Esmeralda.

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A diver investigates the remains of a World War II battleship in Palau, Micronesia.

Mearns closes with the prediction that history will remember the current era as “The Golden Age of Shipwreck Hunting,” a time when technology has risen to meet ambition and curiosity. Indeed, of the two key wrecks in Mearns’s wish list, included in the book’s final chapter, USS Indianapolis was relocated in August 2017, within months of The Shipwreck Hunter’s release in the United Kingdom and Australia, and, beginning in January 2019, the Weddell Sea Expedition will depart for Antarctica to seek Shackleton’s Endurance.

Excepting the first few pages of the introduction and afterword, which are playfully framed as advice for job seekers, the remainder of the book is equal parts a suspenseful story, a lesson in hard work, and a compelling argument for the modern importance of discovering and documenting shipwrecks.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Marine Affairs, University of Rhode Island, Kingston, RI 02881, USA.


Lost in Math

Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray

Sabine Hossenfelder
Basic Books
2018
304 pp.
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Lost in Math is the debut book by Sabine Hossenfelder, a theoretical physicist known to many from her blog, “Backreaction,” which is one of the most well-read of its kind by practitioners of theoretical high-energy physics. Hossenfelder has gained some notoriety for her strong opposition to common arguments that physicists make when formulating new theories.

Hossenfelder seems resigned to a dismal reception, predicting in October 2017, “This isn’t a nice book and sadly it’s foreseeable most of my colleagues will hate it. By writing it, I waived my hopes of ever getting tenure (1).” Although sure to be unpopular, her critical assessment of the field is appropriately timed. In recent decades, high-energy physicists have increasingly relied on theoretical guiding principles to develop new models of nature and to motivate new experiments. But these principles are losing validity, as the Large Hadron Collider has failed to verify many of their predictions. It is a real crisis: Just as the stakes surrounding experimental tests have risen (many experiments have become so costly that they need funding from several governments), our theoretical criteria are starting to fall apart.

Lost in Math paints a very bleak picture of the state of affairs, with Hossenfelder serving as the iconoclast. Our theoretical guiding principles, she insists, are more aesthetic than scientific. Although they may have influenced some historical successes, most of these successes were “postdictions” rather than predictions and should therefore not be counted as evidence. The theoretical physics community, she argues, is falling victim to group thinking and cognitive bias.

The book relies heavily on interviews with important stakeholders in the physics community, including several Nobel laureates and other well-known physicists. Hossenfelder interlaces direct quotes from the interviewees with her own interpretations of what they mean (and, often, why she thinks they are wrong). The interviews are the book’s main source of nuance, but her heavy-handed contextualization spoils them.

Hossenfelder’s book is not the first exposition on the state of theoretical physics for a general audience, but it is more sweeping in its scope. An academic dialogue might have been more appropriate, however; the choice to write for a lay audience is limiting. Although good analogies are found for some technical concepts, most readers will be left with only a high-level understanding of the arguments under discussion. Different concepts are conflated throughout the book (for example, technical naturalness, which has a statistical meaning, and mathematical elegance) and are somewhat mockingly referred to collectively as “beauty.” Even with these simplifications, however, the writing level will likely be challenging for nonphysicists.

Of course, all this might be forgiven if Hossenfelder offered a convincing alternative vision for the future of the field. Instead, the book’s last chapter includes a half-hearted argument in favor of more collaborations with philosophers (recognizing the philosophical nature of many of our theoretical guiding principles). But the reader is left to imagine what such a synergy would look like and what it would give rise to.

 

Editor’s Note: This review originally contained an unattributed quote, which has since been removed.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH 03755, USA.


Luminous Creatures

Luminous Creatures: The History and Science of Light Production in Living Organisms

Michel Anctil
McGill-Queen’s University Press
2018
488 pp.
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Although scholars have been documenting and studying the production of light by living things since the time of the ancient Greeks, the word “bioluminescence” still elicits a sense of mystery and wonderment for the natural world. Despite its title, Michel Anctil’s book, Luminous Creatures, does not focus solely on bioluminescent organisms but instead reveals these creatures through colorful stories of the men and women who have studied them.

The book carefully leads the reader back to antiquity and shows how human knowledge of bioluminescence was intertwined with the development of the scientific method and technologies over the millennia. For example, bioluminescent animals and fungi were the test subjects that revealed that oxygen was the essential gas for biological processes in experiments conducted in the 17th and 18th centuries. The invention of the bathysphere, a spherical deep-sea submersible developed in the 1920s, was driven by a researcher’s desire to observe bioluminescence in situ. The earliest use of research submersibles and remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) was to observe and collect bioluminescent animals.

Even more important, Luminous Creatures provides an unparalleled holistic narrative of the development of oceanography as a scientific practice, the characters that drove the efforts, and the animals that they studied. Records from oceanographic expeditions in the 19th century are full of stories about living specimens bioluminescing aboard ships, for example, and Anctil explains how these organisms fueled many questions about evolution. “Why [does] one finds luminous and non-luminous species in the same genus?,” wondered the French zoologist Henri Gadeau de Kerville, for example, and “Why is it that the number of non-luminous organisms far exceeds the number of luminous organisms and that marine luminous species far outnumber those of terrestrial ones?”

Bioluminescence research expanded after World War II as the field of biochemistry matured. Accordingly, Luminous Creatures breaks from a chronological format in its discussion of the 20th century and beyond, relying on character sketches and brief, single-topic passages to explore more recent achievements in bioluminescence.

PHIL DEGGINGER/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

John Woodland Hastings reportedly paid children a penny apiece to collect fireflies for his research.

One weakness of Anctil’s account is that it is heavily focused on Western science. True, he devotes a chapter to Yata Haneda, an early 20th-century scientist who is considered the “grandfather” of bioluminescence research in Japan, but the contributions of contemporary Japanese scientists such as Nobuyoshi Ohba, Yoshihiro Ohmiya, Yuichi Oba, and the Nobel-winning Osamu Shimomura are skipped or only briefly mentioned.

In addition, the book omits much of the important research conducted by researchers such as Brazilian biochemist Vadim Viviani and American biochemist Bruce Branchini, who helped to determine the molecular structures of luciferins and the biochemical mechanism of bioluminescence. For a more comprehensive contemporary view of bioluminescence research in the 20th century, readers may wish to check out the more technical Bioluminescence: Chemical Principles and Methods.

Despite these shortcomings, Luminous Creatures is profoundly well researched, is scientifically accurate (except for the upside-down ctenophore on the cover page), and provides a unique view into the lives of bioluminescence scientists through the ages. Take time, if you can, to step away from the bright laboratory lights and dive into the enchanting world of living light.

About the author

The reviewer is at the University of California Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, CA 95064, USA, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Moss Landing, CA 95039, USA.


Genetics in the Madhouse

Genetics in the Madhouse: The Unknown History of Human Heredity

Theodore M. Porter
Princeton University Press
2018
447 pp.
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Decades before Gregor Mendel studied pea plants or Thomas Hunt Morgan cultivated fruitflies, an isolated but vital international community gathered enormous bodies of data on hereditary traits. As Theodore Porter describes in his fascinating and original Genetics in the Madhouse, physicians and state officials tasked with overseeing insane asylums throughout the 19th century attempted to understand the origins and nature of madness and, in so doing, laid the foundations for human genetics research today.

Between 1789 and 1900, populations of the insane or “feeble-minded” grew explosively in industrialized Europe and North America. Some 19th-century observers argued that it was a sociological artifact produced by new medical-legal systems and better diagnosis, whereas others put the blame on the social upheaval of industrialization. As patient numbers increased and governments demanded demonstrations of the efficacy of asylum “cures” to justify footing the exponentially growing bills, doctors and administrators turned to new methods of recordkeeping and data organization.

Handwritten narratives of patients’ personal histories of madness were captured in account books and then in a succession of preprinted forms, cards, and charts, which placed familial relationships at the forefront of asylum diagnosis. Standard forms simplified data-sharing, allowing administrators to plot correlations between patterns of familial inheritance and specific types of madness or to conduct national censuses of hereditary insanity. By following the technologies of paperwork and data collection, Porter has unearthed a radically new history of human genetics, one that evokes not the double helix but the humble filing cabinet.

The eugenics movement of the early 20th century did not emerge abruptly from an attempt to apply newly rediscovered Mendelian principles to human beings, Porter reveals, but rather as an extension of the legal and scientific technologies that had been practiced in state-run asylums, prisons, and special schools for the better part of a century. Key early figures of eugenics such as Francis Galton, Karl Pearson, and Charles Davenport were not the precursors of a new science, he argues, but the inheritors of long-running medical-statistical tradition. After the Nazis, eugenics may have been repudiated by scientists and state officials, but the practices of pedigree charting and obsessive data-gathering inherited from the 19th century remained a part of the new human genetics and have been carried forward to the present day.

Genetics in the Madhouse is the result of detailed, painstaking work on the data collection practices of many far-flung and forgotten asylum physicians and state statisticians. Yet, sometimes, the reader begins to feel as if they, too, are being sucked into an endless sea of filing cabinets, statistical tables, and handwritten medical reports. However, part of Porter’s argument is that the narrative of genetic science has not been clean or straightforward, either in its 19th-century origins or in its contemporary incarnations. Genetics is inescapably intertwined with messy, multivalent subjects like health and race, law and education, poverty and warfare.

As a data science, human heredity has a long history, one that current researchers, physicians, policy-makers, and engaged citizens would be well served to keep in mind.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of History, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA.


Tasting the Past

Tasting the Past: The Science of Flavor & the Search for the Origins of Wine

Kevin Begos
Algonquin Books
2018
277 pp.
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In Tasting the Past, journalist Kevin Begos takes readers along on a journey to find the historical origins of wine. During these travels, he introduces researchers in the fields of grape and wine science, presenting the people behind the science as just as important as the science itself. A diverse world of grapes, wine, and winemakers (all of whom have their own stories to tell) complements the scientific story.

Begos’s search for the origins of wine begins with a chance encounter with a wine made from a little-known grape variety in Amman, Jordan. On a reporting assignment in the Middle East, Begos discovers a bottle of alluring red wine produced by Cremisan Cellars in Bethlehem with “spicy flavors and hints of earthy terroir.” Little did he know that uncorking this bottle was the beginning of what would become a 10-year quest to understand this wine and the people who made it.

Throughout his journey, Begos travels to a number of countries that Western societies do not often associate with wine, including Israel, Georgia, and Cyprus. Here, he finds winemakers using methods of wine production unchanged for hundreds of years. They eschew modern, sleek stainless-steel winemaking equipment for fermentation vessels and presses made of stone, ceramic, or concrete, maintaining a cultural link to the past and preserving native wine.

Begos explores the heritage of modern wine grapes through the work of researchers, including José Vouillamoz and Carole Meredith (Swiss and American geneticists, respectively), who use DNA analysis to determine the genealogical relationships between different varieties. Meredith has shown, for example, that Gouais blanc—a much-maligned grape that winemakers tend to consider a subpar variety—is actually one of the parent varieties of Chardonnay. “We realized that a limited number of varieties are responsible for most of the diversity that we observe today,” Vouillamoz tells Begos.

DAVID SILVERMAN/GETTY IMAGES

A woman harvests Mourvèdre grapes at the Carmel vineyard in southern Israel.

The second part of the book concerns the spread of winemaking. Emphasis is given to native wine grapes and to the struggle winemakers face in keeping old vineyards in production. Winemakers using native grapes often face market pressure to replace native vines with ones having strong global dominance, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, reveals Begos. Often these popular varieties do not grow well in environments where native grapes do. As Olivier Bourdet-Pees, director of the French winery Plaimont, states, “If I want to drink a wine from Romania, I don’t want to drink Merlot … The climate there is not so good for Merlot.” This frustration is echoed by University of California–Davis researcher Andy Walker: “… it’s a marketing scam that we ended up with ten varieties that are destined to be the best … all good wine grapes match a particular environmental niche.”

Begos provides tasting notes at the ends of the chapters, including wineries and purchasing options for each of the wines discussed. His story unfolds in a manner similar to the growth of ancient grapevines; rooted in a strong central narrative, side stories grow like tendrils, wrapping around and supporting each other, while clusters of vividly described wines emerge like ripe grapes. Anyone who is interested in wine history, viniculture, or just enjoying a glass of wine will likely find Tasting the Past a pleasurable read.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Food Safety and Measurement Facility, University of California, Davis, Davis, CA 95616, USA.


Catching Stardust

Catching Stardust: Comets, Asteroids and the Birth of the Solar System

Natalie Starkey
Bloomsbury Sigma
2018
256 pp.
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Comets, with their glistening dust tails, have fascinated humanity from our earliest days. The comet Halley, for example, is depicted on the 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry, where it represents a bad omen for an upcoming battle. But should these tiny Solar System objects be feared? Natalie Starkey’s answer is a resounding no. In her book Catching Stardust, comets—and their rockier counterparts, asteroids—are instead revered because they are key to understanding how the Solar System and its planets formed, evolved, and ultimately led to life on Earth. “Comets and asteroids can be viewed as visitors from a distant place, not only in space but also in time,” she writes. “[T]hey bring with them material collected up from the very beginning of the solar system.”

Using her background in geology, Starkey breaks down the categories of small Solar System bodies. Meteorites, she explains, are the debris left over from asteroids after they have traveled through our atmosphere. This makes them the easiest asteroids to study, but easy access comes with a trade-off: Meteorites are heated and deformed during their descent; thus, drawing conclusions about some of an original asteroid’s properties (e.g., its “fluffiness”—the density of the comet compared to its volume—or its ice content) is not possible.

Having described the limitations of studying meteorites, Starkey seamlessly transitions to a discussion of the European Rosetta mission, which spent 2 years orbiting the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and was able to capture data about some of these hard-to-measure properties.
Comets, in particular, which have spent most of their existence far from the reaches of the Sun, offer insight into the birth of planets and the shifts in their orbits over time. After the Solar System had outgrown its infancy, comets may have altered Earth in another important way: bringing water or even the building blocks of life to our planet.

Although the book could have benefited from a more detailed look into the results from the astonishing Rosetta mission, the overall story of comets and asteroids is well presented and bridges many gaps between different observational methods.

But why should we care how fluffy cometary dust is or how much metal is in an asteroid? In the first chapter, we learn that comets and asteroids are the perfect “space lab” to study the conditions that prevailed in the solar nebula. “Without the invention of a time-travel machine,” she writes, “this is our best chance of understanding a crucial time in our history.”

About the author

The reviewer is at the Institut für Geophysik und Extraterrestrische Physik, Technische Universität Braunschweig, 38106 Braunschweig, Germany.


Finding Einstein’s Brain

Finding Einstein’s Brain

Frederick E. Lepore
Rutgers University Press
2018
256 pp.
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On the day of Albert Einstein’s death, an April morning in 1955, the pathologist Thomas Harvey performed an autopsy and, controversially, took possession of the physicist’s brain. Days later, Harvey convinced Einstein’s closest relatives of his purpose: to retain the brain for scientific research. Three decades passed, however, until the first work on Einstein’s brain was disclosed and, to date, only a few studies, whether histological or anatomical, have been published in peer-reviewed journals.

With intellectual rigor and a quite intimate tone, Frederick E. Lepore meticulously tracks Einstein’s brain in space-time for the more than 60 years that have elapsed since the eminent physicist’s death. But Finding Einstein’s Brain is not only the biography of a genius’s brain. That specific quest is meshed into an instructive perspective that encompasses several decades of scientific landmarks in physics and neuroscience.

In addition, the book extensively explores recent advances in neurotechnology and the impact of these advances on our understanding of human cognitive and behavioral capabilities. These technologies could shed light on the brain functioning “of a future Einstein,” argues Lepore, claiming that “the royal road for studying the next Einstein’s brain will be functional and not dissection.”

Einstein, few will be surprised to learn, had an “exceptional” brain. In particular, the book presents recent anatomical evidence showing two main findings. First, Einstein’s corpus callosum—the white matter bundle that connects the left and right hemispheres—was larger than that of control subjects, which might suggest that “Einstein had greater neural interconnectivity” than an average human. Second, every lobe of Einstein’s brain presented differences relative to standard atlases of brain anatomy. For instance, Einstein’s right frontal lobe had four gyri, one more than typically found in humans.

Anecdotally, Einstein’s brain weighed “a little less than expected for a seventy-six-year-old man.” This observation is actually unsurprising, given the current agreement that the correlation between our intelligence, however measured, and our brain size (normalized to body size and age) is vanishingly small. In any case, it will never be possible to know what Einstein’s brain looked like 50 years earlier, when he wrote the fundamental energy equation.

Lepore discusses the philosophical and medical implications of brain examination, focusing on the brain-mind dilemma. Indeed, although the brain has long been considered the primary organ of the mind, it seems clear that the relationship between the brain and the mind is far from understood.
A professor of neurology and clinical researcher, Lepore has an impressive knowledge of the history of science. With this original book, he gives Einstein’s brain a second life and offers the reader a rare opportunity to discover the distinctive features of a genius’s brain, while insisting on the explanatory gap that still exists between brain and mind.

About the author

The reviewer is at Laboratoire Plasticité du Cerveau Ecole Supérieure de Physique et Chimie Industrielles (ESPCI Paris), Paris Sciences et Lettres (PSL) University, Laboratoire de Neurosciences Cognitives Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS), and Institut de la Mémoire et de la Maladie d’Alzheimer (IM2A) Hôpital de la Pitié-Salpêtrière, Paris, France.