August 30, 1999 12:00 PM

For neuroscientist Sandra Witelson, it was a chance to view the Holy Grail—even though the Grail was sitting in the trunk of an old Dodge. “Would you like to see the brain?” Dr. Thomas Harvey asked when he arrived at Witelson’s McMaster University office in Hamilton, Ont., one day in 1996. Harvey escorted her to the garage of the school’s medical center and popped the trunk of his car. “It had seen some mileage,” recalls Witelson, 59. “But there in an old cardboard box were some jars with blocks of tissue in them.”

Witelson was gazing on the source of the theory of relativity—the brain of Albert Einstein, preserved since his death in 1955. Harvey, 86, a retired pathologist, had the brain since performing the autopsy. Years later, having read that Witelson was doing research, Harvey passed some of the preserved tissues on to her. That led to a striking discovery: Witelson found the inferior parietal lobes, which govern mathematical ability and spatial reasoning, were larger than average and lacked a cleft found in normal brains. Some doubt the significance, but Steven Pinker, a professor of cognitive science at MIT, says, “It means that the individual neurons in his gray matter could make much denser, shorter, richer connections.”

Born to an accountant and a homemaker, Witelson showed an early interest in Einstein. After she received her Ph.D. at McGill University, her family often gave her calendars and other gifts adorned with his image. But he might not have been pleased with her probing. Describing his own thinking, Einstein once said, “The intellect has little to do on the road to discovery.”

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