Jilly: Einstein’s Brain and Other Story Starters

18165523_sWhere do you get your best story ideas? Kat wrote a few days ago about being inspired by Mary Colter, architect and independent woman of the early 20th century. My golden nuggets often come from the news, and maybe it’s the advent of Spring, but I feel as though I’m being bombarded with amazing stuff at the moment. None of it’s romance-related, but I’m not complaining. Anything that keeps the imagination firing must be a good thing, right?

Today I was going to write a useful post about creating a series bible, but then I saw this article on the BBC website and knew I had to share it.

If you don’t have the time or inclination to read the full thing, the short version is that when Albert Einstein died, the pathologist who conducted the autopsy sawed open the great man’s cranium, removed its contents, and kept them. The article is fascinating – the story of how Dr. Thomas Harvey kept the brain for more than 40 years, from Einstein’s death in 1955 until he returned it to the University Medical Center of Princeton in 1998, and what various eminent scientists who received samples found (or didn’t find).

Two snippets from the article turned it from a gruesome curiosity into a story starter:

Among those who tried to take it from him [Dr. Harvey] was the US Army. “They felt that having it would put them on a par with the Russians, who were collecting their own brains at that time,” says Abraham. “People were collecting brains – it was a thing.”

The military was collecting brains? It was a thing? Holy smoke, Mary Shelley was way ahead of the game.

And then:

“This was supposed to have been his [Dr. Harvey’s] great good luck charm but in fact it was much more like a relic cursed,” says Abraham. “He lost everything after he took that brain. He lost his job, he lost his marriage, he lost his career at Princeton.”


So could you make a super-weapon from the brains of remarkable people? If the idea isn’t too squicky for you, how would you tell the story? Classic horror, adventure, sci-fi, paranormal?

What about:

  • A special forces zombie task-force – assemble your teams from the most brilliant people who’ve ever lived, provided you can find their brains. You could add new characters at any time, and you’d have Victorian-style body snatchers and a race between the good guys and the bad guys to track down the remains of Somebody Legendary. You could make a gruesome series out of this that would run forever, and it would be perfect for online gaming.
  • Or a James Bond story? A top-secret hi-tech room somewhere, full of brains in tanks, linked up to a super-duper computer by an evil genius who’s out to destroy the world.
  • Or perhaps the only way to use the brains is to make them into a milk-shake and ask for a volunteer, who will be changed forever in ways we can’t be sure of. I’m wondering who should star in this. Matt Damon? Or Will Smith?
  • Or perhaps the military find that the brainpower thing works better if you don’t wait till people die of old age, so brilliant people start disappearing and anyone who asks questions gets warned off with extreme prejudice.
  • Or maybe the experiments unleash an ancient and terrible curse and the story is about how to break the curse before it destroys the world. Son of Indiana Jones, perhaps?

There are so many ways this story could go. I’m even thinking maybe were-cheetahs were a by-product of these experiments, Michaeline 😉 .

Also in the news this week:

Hatton Garden Heist
Over the Easter weekend, thieves raided the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Company, supposedly the London Jewellery Quarter’s most secure storage. In what’s being suggested as an inside job, thieves climbed down a lift-shaft, spent about 24 hours drilling through two metres of reinforced concrete, forced open safety deposit boxes, and took the CCTV footage with them when they left. The Daily Telegraph has a great quote from a former police expert: “There are less than a handful of individuals who have got the wherewithal to be able to get the insider information and have the contacts and financial clout to put this job together.” Right up there with George and Brad’s finest moments.

Huge Oilfield in Southern England
A company called UK Oil & Gas Investments recently announced that it has made a significant oil find in West Sussex, close to Gatwick airport. There are indications that the oilfield may lie under Kent, Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire, and at current prices could be worth just under $500 billion. That’s a lot of money potentially lying under some beautiful, unspoiled and historic countryside. So much conflict there – thrillers, family sagas, a time-slip?

Historic Sea-bed Silver
A salvage team has recovered 100 tonnes of silver rupees worth an estimated $50 million from the deep ocean floor. The steamship carrying it from Bombay to England was torpedoed in the South Atlantic in 1942. Of the 311 people aboard, six died when the ship was sunk, and a further 104 died adrift on lifeboats. You could tell the story of the treasure hunt, but wouldn’t it make a better historical, or a ghost story?

If the fate of Einstein’s brain is too gross for you, what would you do with one of the other stories? Or did something else unexpectedly stimulate your grey matter this week?


13 thoughts on “Jilly: Einstein’s Brain and Other Story Starters

  1. (-: Wow. I think a lovely short story could be made where a company makes a business of cloning brains, and people think they can get a brain transplant and suddenly be Einstein or Leonard Bernstein or something. But then they get their brains and . . . some assembly required. They need all that nurture, and they can do nothing. And they’ve lost their old personalities in the brain transplant, so they are basically babies with some potential.

    I take that back. That’d be a terrible and preachy short story. Not to mention, nobody would be around to regret the loss of the old brain’s personality, and the simplicity of the new brain. (Oh, wait, maybe SPOUSES try this to improve their spouse’s chances at genius. No, no, no.)

    What caught my eye this morning was the guy in Great Britain who took a metal detector out and found a Roman burial site. I’m so jealous of places with history (and historic metals (-:) — it seems a story like this shows up at least once a year. There was some beautiful mosaic glass in the grave which was fascinating. Of course, nobody remembers this dead guy’s name . . . .


    more and better pictures: http://www.livescience.com/50503-photos-roman-england-artifacts.html

    That glass plate is worth writing about. Amazing artifact.

    • Mail order brains! Of course, you know they’re never going to live up to the marketing hype, and just like software and flat-pack furniture, they should be easy to install/assemble but somehow it always needs some tweaking. And the knock-off, unlicensed version comes with all kinds of risks, but people do it anyway. I could see a pushy spouse going for this, or even worse, a pushy parent.

      The glass plate is amazing. Beautiful. This seems to be a particularly good find, but treasure-hunters and farmers and builders are always digging up history here. A couple of the most recent/newsworthy are from the City of London, where there’s a lot of development right now:

      Whole Roman streets at the site of the new Bloomberg HQ, perfectly preserved because it was nice and damp thanks to one of the lost rivers of London. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-22084384

      Excavation of Bedlam (Bethlehem) hospital/plague pit – 3,000 skeletons at the Liverpool Street Crossrail construction site. http://www.crossrail.co.uk/news/articles/bedlam-dig-begins-at-liverpool-street

      • Oh, Jilly, I suddenly understand a lot more about Terry Pratchett’s Pyramids. As a hoarder myself, I want to preserve all that. But how does one LIVE while preserving so much dead stuff? The past tyrannizes the present . . . or the present destroys the past.

  2. What always stimulates my brain is coming here and seeing the wheels turn. You ladies inspire me, truly.

    My brain is being bombarded with application administration stuff right now and the only way to keep a little corner free for writing is to avoid the news (and reading sad to say).

    Once work calms down, I’ll have to look harder at news as a potential mother load of stories.

    • The Nessie story is fabulous. Definitely a cover-up. The question is, what did he see and why did he have to be silenced? Another paranormal in the making here.

  3. Jilly, funny that you also latched onto the brain article. It was the main topic of conversation in our house yesterday. We were all obsessed with different aspects of the story. Personally, my favorite part is that Harvey stored the brain in a beer cooler in the office (for many years, probably) and that when he finally shipped some bits off to UC Berkeley he mailed them in a Miracle Whip Mayonnaise jar. Can you not picture the look on the researchers’ faces when they opened that so-anticipated package? Love it. It’s a ready-made comedy.

    • I know, the beer cooler and Miracle Whip jars are priceless. I also liked the video of Harvey using a cheeseboard in his kitchen to chop off a chunk of brain for a visitor as a souvenir. And what on earth did the visitor do with it afterwards? It’s a romp of a ready-made black comedy.

      • I think the visitor put it in a ketchup bottle and stuck it in the back of the fridge. Yoicks.

        So I’m wondering about the Hatton Garden heist. My favorite kind of story is a caper, so I’m always interested in those, and here’s the thing with this one: if only a “handful” (so, fewer than six, right?) people could have known how to do it, doesn’t that limit the suspects? So the cops should be all over this. Unless the thieves got away with cash, how are they going to get rid of the stocks, bonds, jewels, property? The cops will be watching. Seems like the wrong kind of heist–the kind you can’t capitalize on.

        I’m clearly reading the wrong newspapers.

        • The cops were apparently so all over it that they didn’t even respond to the security alarm – it was triggered but somebody at Cop Central assigned it a code that meant nobody was required to go and investigate, and there was no sign of forced entry, so the theft wasn’t discovered until the place re-opened for business after Easter. No script-writer would get away with that.

          Hatton Garden is the heart of the UK diamond business. It’s a small area, family businesses, very secretive, operates on trust and they have to know you very, very well for you to even scratch the surface of how the place works. It’s not just your everyday engagement rings either – they have some incredible sparklies knocking around the place. The primary use of the vault would have been to keep diamonds and other gems and I would guess a lot of traders left their stock there because it was a holiday weekend. So to your point, the thieves must have had a plan for disposing of millions of dollars worth of dodgy diamonds. It’s totally movie-worthy. I have to believe they’ll work out who did it (if they didn’t already), and I’m sure this is not the end of the story.

      • All signs of a character who has a very practical, hoarding sort of mindframe that isn’t very much concerned with appearances (or maybe even the big picture).

        Follow up on Kenji Sugimoto — there’s a book called “Magical Objects” that theorizes that Sugimoto’s Shintoistic beliefs play into something here. https://books.google.co.jp/books?id=P_wcLQ-hKOYC&pg=PA42&lpg=PA42&dq=einstein%27s+brain+in+japan+Kenji+Sugimoto&source=bl&ots=Fetcq3oWBn&sig=xD6IrELsmsIMTsAqxNI9IrdWvmM&hl=en&sa=X&ei=50c0VfWYNc3h8AWrroCoDw&ved=0CDQQ6AEwBDgK#v=onepage&q&f=false

        “Piece of Einstein’s brain brings harmony.” And he says he looks upon it as an “omamori” — which is a kind of good luck charm.

        I tried looking up Kenji Sugimoto, but it’s a common name; there are at least a couple of guys who show up in a five minute google. But it would be very interesting to see this Cult of Einstein have influence upon a bunch of scientists. They aren’t supposed to be ruled by superstition . . . .

  4. LOL, believe it or not, your British oil fields were featured in a Japanese program about world oil supply last night. I was just telling my husband about your oil fields when a map showed up on the TV screen — the major oil fields of the world in bright, blood red. My god, that’s a HUGE oil field, isn’t it? Then they showed people in London protesting fracking (and then I had to go to bed).

    It’s really interesting how it plays out. There just aren’t that many people out in oil country in Texas (too dry to support much of a population base) — and I assume the same is true in Saudi Arabia. But Britain is COVERED in people. There’s a much stronger DIRECT human cost for developing the oil extraction in that area.

    • Yes, we are a small country and the south of England is beautiful, green landscape, lots and lots of history, and lots of people. It couldn’t be more wrong for oil extraction, but that’s a lot of petro-dollars and human nature being what it is, now that it’s been discovered I can’t imagine we’ll just let it sit there. It is going to be hugely contentious, I’m sure.

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