LIFE magazine has unearthed some ‘previously unseen’ (by THE INTERNET) photos of the hours immediately following Einstein’s death. Here’s his desk, as he left it:
Photographed by the now 92-year-old Ralph Morse, who worked for the magazine for decades, the photographs are interesting as an early ancestor of the graveyard paparazzi beat so familiar to TMZ readers these days. Morse followed the family all around Princeton, documenting the mechanics of his burial, snapping the coffin, the family arriving at the crematorium and returning to the family home.
The reason the photos haven’t been seen until now is interesting. Einstein’s son asked Morse’s editor not to publish them and he didn’t, which goes to show (a) how what is considered newsworthy has changed in 65 years and (b) the autonomy today’s editors have long since lost.
One other thing that perhaps highlights a certain ethical grey area is slide 10, in which we see Dr. Thomas Harvey, who performed Einstein’s autopsy, posing with partially carved brain tissue. Is it the great physicist’s cranial matter? Who can say? Well, says Morse, it’s impossible to be certain, but maybe, wink-wink, nudge-nudge, say-no-more:
“You know, it was fifty-five years ago. Honestly, I don’t remember every single detail of the day. So whatever he’s cutting there …” Morse’s words hang in the air. Then, mischievously, he laughs.
The road from The Atlantic to The Smoking Gun is shorter than you think.
In 1769, the Swiss naturalist Charles Bonnet noticed his grandfather, who was almost completely blind, was seeing things. He saw people, patterns, carriages and birds “amusing and magical visions” - but these were not apparent to everyone else. Normally, when an elderly person starts talking about hallucinations, we reach for the shelf marked ‘dementia’. Charles Lullin, the man in question, was not senile. In fact, he was markedly lucid, especially given this was 1769 and he was not far from his ninetieth year.
Bonnet himself was by profession a naturalist & philosopher, a Natural Philosopher being the precursor of what we now call the natural sciences. He took the threads of his system from the work of Leibniz - specifically, there was only one original act of creation (a divine Big Bang) and that the continuity of existence is unbroken. The essential theory is of God as a sort of architect of perpetual clockwork motion or cosmic gardener, winding the cogs or creating the seeds, then letting the universe go, to develop as it will. In this way, the germs of evolutionary theory can be seen.
Back to Mr. Lullin. The old man was very aware that his visions were not real - that is, he understood they were hallucinations without basis in material reality as everyone else experienced it. Charles Bonnet catalogued his grandfather’s experience and in time, the condition came to be known as Charles Bonnet Syndrome, or CBS. If you are visually impaired and suffer from CBS, you will be subject to occasional abrupt hallucinations, often of a geometric nature (but surreal Gilliamesque apparitions are not uncommon either), which can last for seconds or linger for hours. You are not otherwise mentally impaired - it in no way affects your other cognitive processes. Swiftian fans will be delighted to hear that many of the visions are what is described as ‘lilliput hallucinations’ - everything is smaller than normal.
Both the neurologists Oliver Sacks and VS Ramachandran, familiar to Radiolab listeners, have written and discussed the syndrome, the latter having done so in the book Phantoms In The Brain. Here’s Sacks at TED.com, explaining his own experience of the condition, both as a doctor and a patient.
‘As you lose vision - as the visual part of the brain are no longer getting any input, they become hyperactive and excitable, firing off spontaneously in all directions’, according to Sacks. This is true of all aspects of the brain. People suffering from hearing loss often describe ‘sound hallucinations’. VS Ramachandran is famous for popularising and studying the idea of the ‘phantom limb’ - when amputees feel the ghost of a limb long since removed. So one thing you can be reasonably sure of, if you live long enough to lose some essential part of ‘you’, those parts of your brain that controlled it will find some way of filling the space.
The idea that the brain works without necessarily consulting the mind is one of my favourite Big Ideas and expect many more posts on this themes. In the meantime, go for a walk and listen to this episode of Radiolab, in which Oliver Sacks explains why your body is in shock before you are and VS Ramachandran discusses how mirrors can help remove phantom limbs.
[UPDATE: Massively irritating embedded autoplayer removed & replaced with polite, unassuming link.]
Radiolab: Where Am I?
In a refreshingly positive alternative to the John Kennedy Toole ‘die and then get published/famous’ paradigm, Paul Harding won the Pulitzer Prize for a manuscript he’d kept in his drawer.
How did he do this? Not via Facebook.
Recently Dave Eggers & McSweeney’s took their signature style to the newspaper world:
The publication, particularly the economic strategy behind it, was not without its critics
But be that as it may. Here is an interesting talk/interview Eggers recently gave ‘on the future of print’. Worth a read.
He may not have seen the tabloids (or many of the broadsheets) lately, though:
“I like…the calmness, the authority, the curation of a daily paper, where I know I’m not going to be sent into something totally trivial and non-germane”
- literally ‘the un-homely’; more often understood in English as the uncanny, this refers to any instance which seems familiar and strange simultaneously, and the unsettling effect that creates in the reader/viewer.
First coined by Ernst Jentsch in 1906:
In telling a story one of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the reader in uncertainty whether a particular figure in the story is a human being or an automaton and to do it in such a way that his attention is not focused directly upon his uncertainty, so that he may not be led to go into the matter and clear it up immediately.
It was popularised by - and is probably connected for all time in the popular consciousness with - Sigmund Freud, who expanded on Jentsch’s idea to (typically, one supposes) bring in the maelstrom of emotions that arise from social taboo, such as disgust, prurience, envy, lust, fear, et al. For Freud, the uncanny is a representation/reminder of our id, of the baser feelings that drive us and hence our experience of it necessarily is both familiar & strange.
The uncanny in literature:
The uncanny in life:
So, another blogging service is going down. I wrote a few posts for a clever idea some of my friends and I had called Eleven Hundred Hours; but like everything else, life, bills, laziness and the rest got in the way.
I still think it was a fun idea and I like the posts we put up there. Hopefully we’ll manage to do something else like this in the future (ideally not the far distant future). In the meantime, and being fully aware that I’m posting in another space I do not own or control, I’m going to repost my entries here - as much to record them for myself as anything else.
If any readers are interested, my able, eligible, admirable and inevitable posters were: