Calling Roland Barthes, Einstein’s Brain App

Somewhere Roland Barthes is smiling. Slashgear reported that there’s an iPad app that allows you “to investigate Albert Einstein’s brain as if they were looking through a microscope. The goal of the app is to make slides and images of Einstein’s brain more accessible to scientists, students, and anyone else curious about the genius. I read Barthes’s Mythologies and the essay “The Brain of Einstein” when I was studying rhetoric at Berkeley. The app reminded of his essay. Barthes shows that the focus on Einstein’s brain strips away magic, turns him into a machine, and “introduce[s] him into a world of robots.” “Through the mythology of Einstein, the world blissfully regained the image of knowledge reduced to a formula.” For me Barthes evokes Chaplin’s Modern Times but for the great man when he describes that Einstein becomes “genius so lacking in magic that one speaks about his thought as of a functional labour analogous to the mechanical making of sausages, the grinding of corn or the crushing of ore: he used to produce thought, continuously, as a mill makes flour, and death was above all, for him, the cessation of a localized function: ‘the most powerful brain of all has stopped thinking’.”

Why would we do this? Because we want to capture and conquer nature and move beyond magic. Maybe if we reduce and reify we can find the secret to Einstein and all become him (and then the fashion industry collapses as all realize wearing the same thing is quite smart). Yet we want the magic too. The blog Quantum Lit puts it this way:

Barthes goes on, with no little touch of sarcasm: “Through the mythology of Einstein, the world blissfully regained the image of knowledge reduced to a formula,” and no fewer than six times, uses the word ‘magic’ when referring to the myth of Einstein and his search for a unifying theory, concluding that “In this way [having not discovered the unifying theory] Einstein fulfills all the conditions of myth, which could not care less about contradictions so long as it establishes a euphoric security: at once magician and machine, eternal researcher and unfulfilled discoverer, unleashing the best and the worst, brain and conscience, Einstein embodies the most contradictory dreams, and mythically reconciles the infinite power of man over nature with the ‘fatality’ of the sacrosanct, which man cannot yet do without.”

Who knows? Maybe some physical thing is at work. “The study of Einstein’s brain allowed researchers to discover that Einstein’s parietal lobe was 15% wider than normal. The parietal lobe is the area of the brain that has to do with understanding math, language, and spatial relationships.” A clue but the riddle is unsolved. And alas! MRI was not available to model Einstein’s brain. Nonetheless the app enables crowd-sourcing of the quest: “slides and images of Einstein’s brain [are] more accessible to scientists, students, and anyone else curious about the genius.” So all is well. Together we can partake of the brain, the myth, of Einstein. Perhaps we will even grok Einstein; and if we can clone him, consume him as Jubal Harshaw did for Valentine Michael Smith.

SIDE NOTE: Apparently the version of Mythologies I referred to and read dropped some essays from the original. A new English translation is available.