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Review - Possessing Genius: The Bizarre Odyssey of Einstein's Brain - Carolyn Abraham

 

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What a story - it's hard not to be fascinated by something so strange. When Einstein died in 1955, contrary to his own explicit instructions, his brain was removed for study.

This engaging book follows the brain on its weird journey (in many pieces), staying in anything from a mortuary to a Tupperware box. (Oh and his eyes took a separate little journey too, though nowhere near as complex.)

It is very well written as a story, but it's worth getting a few negative points out of the way. Abraham delights in being explicit about the biological realities of the human body. Those of a squeamish disposition will probably want to skip a few pages when she gleefully describes exactly what takes place in an autopsy. There can be little doubt, realistic though it may be, that this is done to shock - which is a shame, as this isn't the X-Files.

The other niggle is that Abraham's knowledge is purely medical, and she clearly knows very little about other aspects of science. Her summary description of Einstein's work is, frankly, pitiful. Elsewhere she refers to ENIAC as '"the world's first computer", a statement that is wrong at so many levels it's hard to know where to begin. (Not only was it not the first computer, it wasn't the first electronic computer, nor was it the first programmable electronic computer, which is what she probably intended.)

However, luckily, the book has nothing much to do with Einstein's science (or computing) - it's the story of his brain's travels and the attempts to show that there was something special about it that made him what he was. And as a people-based science story this one is hard to beat. It's a solid gold example of the truth being stranger than fiction - a true delight.

Also in hardback (UK version above is also hardback):                                          

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Reviewed by Brian Clegg

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Last update 05 June 2007