There it is, Einstein’s brain, removed only seven hours after his death, dissected and studied under microscopic slides. Now with painstaking reconstructive surgery, by dint of science and technology, it’s been regenerated whole. Ready for testing.
The Princeton lab that performed this miraculous feat refuses to divulge its secret. Complicated cryogenics. Multifaceted stem-cell regeneration based on a model. All veddy-veddy hush-hush. Speculations abound amongst interrelated disciplines of science. A mystery worthy of the Knights Templar, as touted by major headlines! All they would say is watch the space for the article in Scientific Minds.
One scientist it comes down to – one of these ethnic geeky types by the name of Balakrishnan, rotund in the shape of a trampoline, big chops like Jabba the Hut – whose job it is to determine what, if any, output this regenerated Einstein brain is capable of producing. Will it be able to do simple maths? 1+1 = ? Or will it be able to crack some of the unsolvable mathematical mysteries of our time? The shivers of excitement, practically orgasmic. The collective holding of breaths, stranger and more surreal than a concert hall with a holographic Yo-Yo Ma playing Bartok’s viola concerto. The tobogganing of hope, as childlike as if the world was new again, as exponential and titillating as those playing six degrees of separation.
The world watches on live satellite feed as electrodes and wires are attached to Einstein’s brain, feeding EEG signals to a specially-built computer (dubbed The Genius Equation Building – “GEB” by the graduate research assistants). Turns out it takes another genius to understand a genius. While we wait, they pipe in Yo-Yo Ma playing the cello.
The first signals show up as lines and spikes and waves, and only seconds later, mathematical symbols begin to appear across the blank computer screen. Gasps of disbelief as the commentator babbles, “Would you look at that? It’s a miracle, happening before our very eyes,” and the cameras pan to a sea of faces, faces struck silly with awe.
But then, as quickly as everything has started happening, the machine bleeps, falters, becomes blank. Awww! The commentator hasn’t been able to stop himself. Palpable dismay and a collective hush gathers, reminiscent of how the world watched a different failed simulation – that of the Big Bang in the Large Hadron Collider in 2008. The commentator – a science journalist from CNN, his only redeeming feature being that his voice is so banal and deadpan he sounds like a reporter on NPR – blabs on with his by-the-nanosecond interpretation of events and the response of the audience.
The machine bleeps again. “Just a hiccup, folks. History is writing itself. Crumbs, I’ve spilled coffee on myself.” More equations are scribbling themselves furiously on paper.
The symbols and numbers, black stenciled on white, are mesmerizing. “It’s a basic Feynman diagram,” says the commentator. “We’ll be confirming that in just a second.”
But the equations appear for no more than a second, and even before they are completed, even before the cursor scrolls to the right-hand side of the screen, the preceding symbols evaporate before the world’s very eyes. A sort of frozen panic flashes across Balakrishnan’s face. His assistants turn towards him for instruction. He gestures, mouths something. This is not translated by the commentator. One assistant rushes off screen, re-emerges with a laptop computer and wires.
But Einstein’s brain is still writing.
A voice-over comes over the live feed. Not to worry, it’s Balakrishnan himself speaking into a microphone, “We’re a step ahead of the game. The computer’s memory has been timed to record everything the second it appears.”
But the squiggles and mathematical symbols, cos of nπcλ…although continuing unabated, seem to be fading at a faster rate. Before a whole symbol is written, the first strokes will already begin to blot out, as if a giant hand somewhere is bent on erasing any evidence of genius. Balakrishnan wrings his hand. You can see him shouting, but cannot hear what he’s shouting.
Everywhere in labs around the world, mathematicians and physicists scramble for pen and paper.
“Some level of pandemonium at the Einstein Memorial Lab in Princeton,” the commentator comments. “We’re trying to make sense of these various numbers and symbols we’re witnessing here. Joining us soon is world-famous mathematician Eckhardt Dunbar.”
The writing has petered out. ∑ repeats itself a few times. Then i, then squareroot, then 2, then α. Not even seemingly connected. Nothing else. Empty screen. The waves and spikes of electrical activity stops. The styluses poise over blank rolled paper. The regenerated brain has ceased working.
Pandemonium does break out, but not in the immediate aftermath of the cessation of Einstein’s brain. In the months to come, the hubbub and intellectual activity actually increase – some physicists claim that the fragmented equations we saw were general expressions of relativistic string equations of motion. Nothing genius about it – merely a statement of existing theories. Others claim it was about to break into something new from a fragment of the old. Quantum mechanics has never been so hot and such a household topic.
The religionists got a revival as well. Most of them condemn this kind of interventionist science. Who knows what kind of brains we might restart in the future? What’s to stop them from regenerating Hitler’s brain, or pedophilic or other criminal minds? The bioethicists jump on this bandwagon. Propaganda and invasion politics become normal. The medical community becomes polarized. The scientific community is puzzled. It’s just science, isn’t it? Balakrishnan just wanted to see if he could get Einstein’s brain to work again. Wouldn’t it be cool if it did? No one really expects that it will come up with anything brilliant. That it even lives for those few minutes is a miracle. Or blasphemy, depending on one’s point of view.
There are unexpected benefits: the membership ranks at the Church of Scientology swell, wider cooperation is reported amongst disciplines of science, Congress increases funding for neuroscience, and once again, lots of high school students write down ‘neuroscientist’ as their career top choice, instead of rock singer or basketball champion or hairdresser or celebrity chef.
Meanwhile, a break-in occurs at the Princeton lab and it’s all caught on tape. Three college boys are caught on fuzzy video cradling a reddish mass of brain matter in their hands, affixing electrodes and wires to the EEG equipment somehow, starting up the computer, all while the security alarm systems blare and whoop. Sirens in the background roll up even as the computer bleeps and lines and squiggles of equations form on the screen. They do not disappear like the equations of Einstein’s brain. Lines heaped upon lines of difficult, complicated mathematical relationships, beautiful in its apparent symmetry and symbolic movement. Can it be the birth of a new relativistic equation to sate a parched world lacking for intelligence?
Months later, after these boys have long been given slaps on the wrists and college suspensions, mathematicians finally crack those beautiful lines of code. They shake their heads with wonder at the variance of the noise expressed sporadically through the mathematical jungle, m=0, and again, m=0, decipherable only as ‘moo’. They scratch their beards and other bodily parts: Is this a colossal joke? Have they messed up?
And when the boys finally admit the brain they brought in had belonged to their father’s heifer, Daisy, who in sacrificing herself for the progress of science, was a most excellent cow, the world heaves an audible sigh, that it’s not one jot wiser or mathematically richer, and in pockets everywhere, random people have this sinking thought that the world is not yet prepared to grapple with another Einstein.
E.P. Chiew writes and teaches short stories and flash fiction. She’s the editor of Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World (New Internationalist, 2015) and has won awards for her fiction, including the Bridport Prize and Elbow Room Prize. She’s also been selected as Wigleaf Top 50 (2017 and 2008), nominated for the Pushcart (2016), and shortlisted in several competitions including BBC Opening Lines (2015), Mslexia(2014), Fish Short Story Prize (2012), Top 25 Glimmer Train (2005). She writes free lance on arts and culture in Singapore and blogs at invisibleflaneuse.blogspot.com.