Einstein’s Brain, Storms on Saturn and Bigfoot DNA

BY Jenny Marder and Jeremy Blackman  November 28, 2012 at 12:39 PM EDT

A picture and model of Albert Einstein’s brain was on display during a preview of a March 2012 exhibition in London called “Brains: mind of matter.” Photo by Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images.

Five years ago, while reviewing a paper that contained photographs of Albert Einstein’s brain, anthropologist Dean Falk noticed something unusual: a knob-like feature jutting out in the part of the cortex that controls the fingers of the left hand. Such “knobs” are common to professional violinists, she knew. She also knew that Einstein was trained in violin as a child and was known to retreat to the kitchen with his fiddle when stumped by a physics problem.

Falk, a senior scholar at Santa Fe’s School for Advanced Research, has spent the years since studying the fissures and folds of the rest of the great physicist’s brain and is lead author of a new study, published in the journal Brain, that relies on a collection of rarely seen photographs to analyze it. That knob is just one of many unusual anatomical oddities.

After Einstein died in 1955, a pathologist named Thomas Harvey removed his brain, photographed it thoroughly, cut it up into 240 blocks, sliced some of those blocks into slides, and prepared a roadmap to help future scientists navigate the pieces. Slides and photographs were distributed to researchers, and many have since been lost.

Falk’s team recently acquired a handful of photographs* from Harvey’s estate, and used them to study the entire cerebral cortex, or surface of the brain, which they compared to 85 other brains. While Einstein’s brain was no bigger than average, they found it contained strange asymmetries in the parietal lobe, larger-than-normal folds in the area that regulates motor control of speech and the tongue. And the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls higher thought and memory, was extremely large and convoluted.

“It’s exactly the part of the brain that one would expect would be activated during thought experiments,” Falk said. “We know Einstein was good at imagining himself in a falling elevator, imagining himself riding in a beam of light. So it’s fascinating that he has this form to his frontal lobe.”

The extra bumpiness could indicate complicated organization within his brain as well as strong communication between the different brain regions, both qualities, which could have helped him come up with the general theory of relativity and other ideas involving quantum mechanics, space and light, which now form the basics of modern physics. And as for the enlarged sensory and motor cortex?

“It’s interesting that when Einstein wrote about how he thought, he volunteered that he didn’t think much in words, he thought in symbols. He said his thinking was ‘muscular,’” Falk said. “I wish that had been pursued with him, but I haven’t been able to find anything more on that.”

SATURN STORMS AND PAC-MAN MOONS

A tiny satellite that has been circling Saturn for the last eight years is turning up dazzling new images of the ringed planet. This image released yesterday from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft depicts an enormous cyclone churning at the planet’s north pole. (Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.)

Saturn has some of the fastest wind speeds in our solar system, whipping along the planet’s equator at roughly 1,100 miles per hour. At higher latitudes, currents are known to switch directions on a dime, creating giant, swirling storms at the planet’s poles with centers that plunge deep into the atmosphere. Cassini, which is on an extended mission through 2017, has captured images of these storms, like the one above. More in this Discovery News report.

Using special infrared technology, Cassini has also served up new images from Saturn’s icy moon Tethys, revealing a “heat tattoo” that bears a striking resemblance to the 1980s video game icon, Pac-Man.

It is the second time Cassini has found such heat-based images on moons orbiting the planet. (The first, seen in the image above, was found on Mimas in 2010.) Scientists believe the shapes are caused by high-energy electrons bombarding low latitudes on one side of the moon, turning its fluffy surface to hard ice, according to this release by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“Finding a second Pac-Man in the Saturn system tells us the processes creating these Pac-Men are more widespread than previously thought,” Carly Howett, the lead author of a recent paper on the findings, said in a statement on Monday, according to the JPL report. “The Saturn system — and even the Jupiter system — could turn out to be a veritable arcade of these characters.”

SUBATOMIC PARTICLES CAUSE VIVID NORTHERN LIGHTS

Astronomer Phil Plait posted this beautiful time-lapse video of aurorae in Northern Norway…

…accompanied by the following explainer. From his post in Slate:

“Auroae are the result of subatomic particles from the Sun — protons and electrons — captured by the Earth’s magnetic field, and then channeled down into our atmosphere. At a height of about 100 kilometers (60 miles) above the ground, these particles slam into the atoms and molecules in our air, causing them to glow. The colors tell you which atom is which: green and red are from oxygen (usually, that is; sometimes nitrogen can glow red as well but it’s much weaker), while blue is nitrogen. These colors can even sometimes merge to form purple and pink aurorae! It’s quantum mechanics, and it’s gorgeous.”

LINE ITEMS

  • Brazil, once the poster child for biofuel production, is churning out 26 percent less ethanol than it did in 2008, Nature reports. Dozens of processing plants have closed and prices for the plant-based motor fuel are soaring. But the country hasn’t abandoned the industry just yet — producers are pinning their hopes on a new biofuel source: second-generation ethanol, made from the tough cellulose in plant stalks.

  • Behold, a mosaic shot of Mars taken by the Curiosity rover’s Mast Camera in October and November 2012:

  • Cosmologist Carl Sagan is honored through art installation containing images of stars and galaxies and powered by 12,000 LEDs.

  • Scientists have punctured a frozen lake in eastern Antarctica and found that, after 2,800 years buried below ground, it is still teeming with life, New Scientist reports.. The discovery of a previously unknown bacteria strengthens evidence that life could have existed on planets such as Mars, where scientists have found signs that point to ancient frozen lakes.

  • Scott Kelly, a former space shuttle commander and twin brother of astronaut Mark Kelly is preparing for the longest spaceflight ever attempted by an American, a one-year mission aboard the International Space Station mission in 2015. Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko will join him. The goal, according to NASA, “is to understand better how the human body reacts and adapts to the harsh environment of space.”

  • A new study has found that our language shapes our decisions. Researches at the University of Chicago presented participants with a series of choices in both their native tongue and a second, learned language, and discovered that when speaking the second language, their decisions tended to be “less biased” because the language barrier provided “psychological distance,” Scientific American reports.

  • Researchers have tested a small nuclear-reactor engine that could one day power deep space exploration. The goal: to one day send probes past Mars, where sunlight is so weak that solar panels would have to be as big as football fields in order to properly power a craft.

  • There’s no place like a coal mine for studying climate change in the past and its likely effects today.

  • “Like OMG! Scientists have sequenced Bigfoot DNA !!!!!!” That’s the story’s headline. Now watch this Chronicle reporter debunk the “discovery” piece by piece.

TOP TWEETS

* The images of Einstein’s brain are published in the journal Brain and are reproduced with permission from the National Museum of Health and Medicine, Silver Spring, MD. Article by Falk, Lepore & Noe (2012, The cerebral cortex of Albert Einstein: a description and preliminary analysis of unpublished photographs)

Tom Kennedy and Patti Parson contributed to this report.