Einstein’s Brain: New Insights on Old Gray Matter

Albert Einstein.
Photograph by Oren Jack Turner. Image in the Public Domain due to age.

Albert Einstein would unquestionably be called one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century. So did his brain look much different from the average person’s? As reported on SciTech Daily, anthropologists from Florida State University recently examined photos from Einstein’s 1955 autopsy and found some notable features:

The most striking observation was the complexity and pattern of convolutions on certain parts of the cerebral cortex, especially in the prefrontal cortex and also the parietal lobes and visual cortex.

The prefrontal cortex is important for abstract thinking. The complex pattern of convolutions probably gave the region an unusual surface area, which might have contributed to his remarkable thought processes.

via Photos of Einstein’s Brain Show Unique Features | SciTech Daily.

For those who want to mull over Einstein’s gray matter some more, scans of his brain can be purchased as an App, according to this article on redOrbit.

Dental: Brushing up on the History of Tooth Care

“Toothbrushes through the Ages.”
Credit: The Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry

Quick—Grab your toothbrush. There are only two days left in October, which is National Dental Hygiene Month.

Here are some tools people have used to clean their teeth over the ages:

From left to right: The siwak stick or “chew stick”—a twig with frayed ends—has been used since Babylonian times, particularly among Muslim and African cultures. Taub’s patent toothbrush had a convex, semicircular design made to conform to the tongue side of the teeth. This early 20th-century design was made out of celluloid. A rubber-tipped combination gum stimulator and toothbrush with an aluminum handle, pre-1945. TheStrockway rotary toothbrush was designed with long and short bristle tufts to enable them to go over and in between the teeth as the toothbrush was rolled along the teeth. Circa 1950s.
Dr. Mayland’s toothbrush with rubber points instead of bristles, circa 1920s. The Rotor toothbrush was designed to clean the teeth vertically, circa 1930s.

(Information from the Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry.)

Researchers have even found evidence of prehistoric dental care, though they appear to have been after-the-fact, rather than preventive, procedures:

A New York Times article describes the recent discovery of what appears to be a 6,500-year-old beeswax dental filling. Italian researchers used radiocarbon dating and other techniques to analyze the substance, contained in a cracked tooth from a human jawbone in the collection of the Museum of Natural History in Trieste, Italy. (The jawbone was found in 1911, inside a cave in Slovenia.) Their findings appear in the open-access journal PLoS One.

Dentistry may go back as far as 9,000 years. In 2006 anthropologists found 11 drilled human teeth in an Neolithic graveyard in Pakistan, as reported in this National Geographic News article by Amitabh Avasthi.  (The findings appear in the journal Nature.) Avasthi writes, “The discovery suggests a high level of technological sophistication, though the procedure, which involved drills tipped with shards of flint, could hardly have been a painless affair.”

Ouch. I think I’ll go brush one more time.

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Cannibals, Crash Blossoms, and CEOs

Kadavu (Fiji Islands). From the Scottish Geographical Magazine. Published by the Scottish Geographical Society and edited by James Geikie and Arthur Silva White. Volume V, 1889.

I’m not sure how many hours of my life were wasted watching Gilligan’s Island reruns as a child, but it always seemed like one or more of the characters was getting tied up by the local “headhunters” while a big pot of water boiled nearby.

Mrs. Howell: Thurston, I didn’t know we were asked for dinner.
Mr. Howell: I’m afraid my dear we are the dinner.

The mortuary and bioarchaeology blog Bones Don’t Lie provides a more nuanced picture of the practice of cannibalism, reviewing (in its Oct. 4 post) a recent study of human remains from archaeological sites and a museum collection in Fiji. The research, conducted by Sharyn Jones (University of Alabama-Birmingham) and others, is published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.

Anthropologists and other scholars study a variety of clues, including cut marks on bones and ethnohistoric accounts, to place cannibalism in cultural context. This allows comparisons to be made between different case studies from around the world.

As the Bones Don’t Lie blogger, Katy Meyers, points out, “Cannibalism occurs for a number of reasons in a number of ways: people consume other humans when they are foreigners or from that culture, it can be for veneration or violation, or it can be as a source of sustenance.”

In Jones’ study, she goes on to explain, stable isotope analysis showed that “human flesh” was not a significant part of the diet of the individuals examined. Nor did the remains bear the marks of violence. “This means it was ritualistic, perhaps associated with ancestor worship.”

Crash Blossoms

“No, dear. I can’t make sense of this one either.”
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Geoff Livingston










I actually paused before posting on cannibalism, wondering if I was guilty of seeking an attention-grabbing headline. Some other headlines just leave you scratching your head, because they read in a way that was not intended by the headline writer. Although this phenomenon has probably been around as long as newspapers themselves, it finally got a name a few years ago: crash blossoms.  Editors Mike O’Connell and Dan Bloom coined the term after discussing an ambiguous newspaper headline: “Violinist Linked to JAL Crash Blossoms.”

Linguist Bill Zimmer wrote in The New York Times:

After encountering enough crash blossoms, you start to realize that English is especially prone to such ambiguities. Since English is weakly inflected (meaning that words are seldom explicitly modified to indicate their grammatical roles), many words can easily function as either noun or verb. And it just so happens that plural nouns and third-person-singular present-tense verbs are marked with the exact same suffix, “-s.” In everyday spoken and written language, we can usually handle this sort of grammatical uncertainty because we have enough additional clues to make the right choices of interpretation. But headlines sweep away those little words — particularly articles, auxiliary verbs and forms of “to be” — robbing the reader of crucial context.

via On Language – Crash Blossoms – NYTimes.com.

Language Log, a great place to learn what linguists are talking about, discusses the occasional crash blossom. The Crash Blossoms blog is devoted entirely to these confusing headlines.


I’m not sure if this qualifies as a crash blossom, but the following Science Daily headline caught my attention: “Summer Babies Less Likely to be CEOs.” Once I wiped away the image of infant-executives screaming and flinging strained peas across the boardroom, I read the article.

“What do you mean 1st quarter earnings are down?” Crying Baby by bbaunach, used with Creative Commons licensing.

According to the Science Daily piece, researchers at the University of British Columbia business school examined the birthdates of 375 CEOS from S&P 500 companies from 1992 to 2009. They somehow determined which executives had been the youngest and oldest in their classes. They found that the “oldest,” who were born in March and April, made up 12.53 percent and 10.67 percent of the sampled leaders. In contrast, the “youngest,” born in June and July, made up only 6.13 percent and 5.87 percent of the CEOs.

The results will be published in Economics Letters in December. It’s unclear to me how the researchers accounted for who was held back and who was advanced at school, and why those particular birth months were chosen to represent the youngest and oldest, so I would like to read more.

Maurice Levi, coauthor of the study, explained that older children typically perform better than younger classmates in their grade at school, which may lead to them obtaining leadership roles and other advantages.“We could be excluding some of the business world’s best talent simply by enrolling them in school too early,” Levi said.

Interesting news. But I don’t think it’s anything to fling your peas over.