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The Einstein Brain (link to Nesvadba homepage)

"The situation is extremely grave," Professor Kozhevkin brought his report to a close. "During the lifetime of the last few generations our progress in various technical fields has liberated mankind, freed mankind from drudgery, hunger and war, and opened the way to the Universe. I can still remember the time when the Engineering Faculties of our Universities had the pick of the finest students, and when it was the heart's desire of every young man to study some branch of technical science. Look at things today! Our young people have lost interest in what we are doing. Physics, chemistry and mathematics suddenly seem to have lost all interest for them. Every year there are fewer and fewer students applying for entrance to our Engineering Faculty in Alma-Ata. There is a danger that in a few years we shall find ourselves obliged to restrict our research work and set limits to the number of staff we can employ. This state of affairs cannot be allowed to go on. Our machines cannot work without people to control them; they cannot take care of the needs of mankind unless there is someone to run them. Energetic steps must be taken."

We all clapped and Dr. Kozhevkin sat down.

"At our University in Toronto," Professor Clark Smith-Jones took the floor, "things are almost worse. We have already had to shut down several of our specialised departments in certain aspects of space research, as well as the Department for Research into the Nature of Elementary Particles. While students flock to hear lectures on Goethe or Herder's views on art, we have been forced to give up the gymnasium to the Lecturer in Aesthetics, although when the University was founded his department was almost forgotten, it was so insignificant. The shocking thing is that we cannot imagine how this state of affairs has come about. Is it the natural desire of the younger generation to rebel against their parents and do something different? Or is it some kind of unconscious protest (here Professor Kozhevkin permitted himself to smile) against figures themselves as the symbols of order and therefore as symbols of paternal authority? Our psychologists have been studying this matter for a long time, but alas! they have not been able to come to any conclusion."

We clapped again and Professor Smith-Jones sat down. For a while there was an uncomfortable silence. Nobody felt like carrying on with the discussion. They were all afraid to speak up. Yet the reasons for this changing trend had been known long enough. I decided to speak myself.

"There is no point in refusing to face the facts," I got down to brass tacks at once. "We've come to the end of our resources. We've reached a dead end. It is true that since the end of the nineteenth century the technical sciences have transformed the world and thrown all other branches of knowledge into the shade; they have made it possible for humanity to devote itself to more important tasks and so on and so forth. We are all aware of these things. But technical progress has not solved the fundamental problems of the human mind. People are still asking how and why we should live; we still know nothing of how the universe came into being, and we cannot understand the fourth dimension Einstein worked out. Whenever we set this question to our cybernetic machines they reject it as unscientific, wrongly programmed, too personal, private, human. But this does not make the question any less urgent for every one of us. Professor Smith-Jones and Professor Kozhevkin both have the most ingeniously equipped laboratories that can be imagined; their brain machines solve in three seconds mathematical problems that would take even a clever mathematician a lifetime to work out -- but these machines cannot answer our fundamental questions. And so we find ourselves in a vicious circle. Physics has become a practical branch of science, and the extent to which it is dependent on philosophy is becoming clearer day by day; it's about the same as the way lace-making is dependent on the artist's design. That is why we are losing the interest of the younger generation. We are not concerned with the fundamental things of life. We are back where we started. We can make machines which do the washing perfectly, cook most efficiently, perform surgical operations, fly through space -- just as our forefathers hundreds of years ago made mechanical piano-players and dancing bears. They used to display their inventions at circuses. Thoughtful people in those days considered the inventors no more than toy-makers, charlatans. The same fate menaces us."

Nobody applauded me. Perhaps I had laid it on a bit thick. Smith-Jones was frowning and the others were muttering to each other. The noise in the room increased.

"What have you got against my machines, madam?" Professor Smith-Jones leapt to his feet. "With the exception of the brain machines constructed by Professor Kozhevkin (he bowed in the other man's direction) they are the most efficient brain machines in the world. Nobody present here today can claim to have such a fine brain. Not even you, madam..."

"I do not think as fast, or as faultlessly; you are right. But I can think up new problems, I can keep all your machines busy dealing with my doubts and my ignorance, and I like watching the sunset..." Smith-Jones was smiling ironically. As if he regretted having bothered to reply to a woman colleague of such insignificant standing. He, one of the greatest brains in the scientific world.

"It is of course true that our brain machines cannot understand the fourth dimension, and can only describe the secrets of the universe..." Professor Kozhevkin admitted, and it was clear he regretted the fact. "From the point of view of the exact sciences, of course the question is wrongly postulated."

"That is why I propose to construct a biological brain," I took the floor again, "because it would be more human than your mechanical brains, and would be able to understand. A real knowledge machine."

"The Einstein brain?" Smith-Jones smiled again, scornfully. His joke gave my experiment its name. From that time on everybody talked about little else than the Einstein brain business.

My plan was a simple one, which I had already discussed with the physiologists and biologists. With the help of a special apparatus we would find the three most capable brains among people who had just died, and condense them by a special process, to make one single organ which would then be subjected to resuscitation processes, followed by electrical stimulation.

On the day fixed for the experiment to begin I sent my assistants round all the regional hospitals; they were equipped with special rationmeters. The most capable brains were shown to be those of a professor of architecture who was killed by a fall from some scaffolding, and a little-known poet. We took his brain, bearing in mind Einstein's aphorism that imagination is more important than knowledge. As the third brain we took that of Mrs. Anna Novak, who had been killed in a road accident. Her brain gave us great food for thought. She was a housewife and the mother of a family, who had never achieved much in her life; and yet our apparatus recorded the greatest capacity precisely in her brain. We trusted our recordings, and started the work of condensing the brains. It was of course a long and difficult business, but everything went according to plan and the experiment proper could begin.

I fed the brain a basic equation in physics, and applied electrical stimulus to the appropriate area. The electric current appeared to act as an inspiration stimulating the brain to emit its conclusions promptly by means of small antennae situated on the surface. On our infinitely sensitive recorder we registered the answer, which seemed to confirm some of the hypotheses put forward by Professor Kozhevkin. I sent off a telegram to Alma-Ata straight away. Kozhevkin's hypotheses had only recently appeared in a journal of physics. Certainly neither a professor of architecture nor a poet were likely to have physics journals, and still less a housewife. It would appear, then, that my brain evolved these conclusions independently.

The weeks which followed were joyful indeed. The brain emitted further solutions, developed Kozhevkin's hypotheses even more boldly, worked out combinations of the results and came to conclusions which even the Professor himself had not yet dared to publish. There was one unfortunate thing about the brain, though; it was irregular. That worried me -- the brain did not seem to be able to get used to a regular working day. It stopped responding promptly to stimulation. Sometimes the only answer to a stimulus would be a foolish remark, as thought the brain was trying to joke. Or it would work at night, when I was no longer present in the laboratory, as though it had "stored up" the stimulating energy we had applied to it.

A month later the brain stopped working altogether. It was "alive" -- to give a more intelligible account of its state I should explain that an intricate metabolism maintained by another electric appliance continued to take place in the tissues, yet at the same time the electrical stimuli no longer produced responses. The experiment seemed to be failing.

Just then I received a letter from Professor Kozhevkin, who sent me an article he was publishing the following month in the "Science" magazine. His work agreed with the conclusions drawn by my artificial brain. Both the Professor and my brain seemed to be on the track of a fundamental solution to a profound problem -- and my brain had chosen this moment to go on strike. I was wondering how I could mend it, when I got the idea of making a special apparatus by means of which the brain could "talk", that is to say, it could dictate its answers and make any additional remarks it wanted to. It seems a bit terrifying, I agree, but I thought that if I gave the brain a well-known man's voice -- say a favourite television announcer's -- the effect would not be so inhuman. In a few days my brain was able to "talk". What were its first words? Nothing whatever to do with scientific hypotheses.

"You are neglecting me," it said.

That was a surprise indeed. I had thought that electrical stimulation could take the place of all forms of reward. It now became clear that we had still not mastered affectivity and that we had not yet found any substitute for the feelings of security and pleasure man derives from his relations with those near and dear to him; no chemical reaction could supply this. Such was the first conclusion to which my experiment had brought me. And so I had to have recourse to an old-fashioned method. I began to take care of my invention personally. I moved into the laboratory to be near it, and talked to it night and day. My colleagues could not understand me. Some of them said I must have fallen in love with the television announcer and spent my time enjoying the sound of his voice. There were others who thought I'd just gone mad.

Soon I began to understand my "brain" easily, and even took down its answers when the dictaphone happened to be out of order. Then a fortnight later we had another breakdown. The brain seemed to be upset. It kept shouting one and the same sentence at me, as if it were absolutely furious about something. I was very patient and kept talking calmly for a long time, to soothe it. He ought to be reasonable, with such a brain capacity, with a magnificent brain like that. It was then that I realised I was really talking to some kind of a creature, and not to an isolated arrangement of functioning tissue. Unconsciously I began to imagine a creature with this brain of his.

That was just what he wanted. First the electrical stimulation, and now the personal care -- were not enough. The individual areas of the brain with which he had originally seen, smelt and felt by touch, were anxious to become active; they, like his speculative powers, wanted to be kept busy. What he wanted to have once more was a whole organism, with all its senses, and even with its skin.

I should like to emphasise here that it was only after very serious consideration that I decided to go on with the experiment. There was too much at stake, now. And my colleagues in the experimental surgery department were only too glad to have this chance of making a human body out of their plastics instead of the missing limbs and organs which were all they were normally asked for. I had no idea what his face ought to be like, of course, and so instead of a face we left him a nice arrangement of bandages, so that he looked like a man recovering from a severe accident.

We returned to the laboratory together. He was "happy." He was whistling to himself a melody that perhaps the poet had known in his lifetime. He stood by the window and looked down at the river flowing near by. It did not occur to him that he ought to set to work.

"What a beautiful view," he said. I had never realised it before, because I always had my nose buried in my books and never looked out of the window.

"You may like to know that Professor Smith-Jones..." I began tactfully.

"He's miles behind the times," he replied. "A complete fool," and he sat down at the desk. "Book seats for the theatre this evening."

I was taken aback by this. Surely he didn't want to go out with me as well? I had inquiries made about the architecture professor; he had not liked the theatre, it seemed. The poet had only liked going to concerts. We seemed to have given too much weight to the contribution of Mrs. Novak to this invention. The trouble was that by now people all over the place were following our work with this brain of ours. Above all, because it was not possible to follow it. There were learned arguments about whether the responses given by the brain were nonsensical automatic numerical texts, or whether they were the fruit of original and hitherto unknown thought processes carried on by a brain raised to the fourth power. Only further experiment could supply the answer. And so I decided that I would go to the theatre with him after all.

He laughed louder and wept more frequently than anybody else in the audience. I enjoyed the play, too. I so rarely went to the theatre in the ordinary way. There was so much to be done in the laboratory. The trouble was that after the play he wanted to come home with me. I had to explain that I was over fifty and that I had a grown-up daughter whose light-hearted way of life I frequently had to criticise, and that I could on no account take a strange man home with me for the night. I used the word "man" on purpose. Of course that made him sad. Then he threatened to stop working because, he said, he'd got nothing to work for. That was when I first realised that for his work he needed human inducements, the incentive of competing with Smith-Jones, of loving me, of enjoying family life.

At first my daughter was afraid she'd have to put up with a monster like Frankenstein, the famous monster of silent screen days, but she soon got to like him quite well. It even seemed at times as though she found him easier than me to get on with. She is a strange girl, you see. At first she wanted to work on a lunar station like her father, whom I left soon after our marriage because he had no understanding for my scientific work. Then she wanted to be a dancer, but in my opinion her hips are too broad for that. Now she is studying Hittite, obviously only so as to avoid studying physics, just to annoy me. She's not particularly good at Hittite, while I, at her age, had already made a name for myself. Worst of all, she is expecting a baby by an unknown young man she hasn't even brought home to introduce to me.

My artificial brain seemed to do even less work than my daughter, and that certainly gave them plenty in common. In the course of a day he would write a few lines, and then go for a walk in the park or go swimming in the river. And he kept on explaining to me that I ought to love my daughter, which is obvious anyway, and that I must change my ways and that work in the laboratory is not the be-all and the end-all. The sort of arguments you can hear at every street corner these days. I did not need to invent a biological system to hear that sort of thing. Nor did he keep his advice for me alone; he would stop and talk to everybody he met; the people living in our block of flats began to pass the time of day, respectfully, and at a safe distance.

At this stage he was dictating responses which were no longer equations at all; they were symbols such as nobody in the world yet understands. Smith-Jones naturally declared it was a pack of nonsense, disconnected and confused scraps of knowledge from the brain's three previous lives. He published his views in a journal. It was a bombshell. I was sent for by the Head of our research institute, journalists tried to interview me, and my experiment became common knowledge. If it did not succeed I should have lost everything.

The super-brain was not a bit worried. That day he barely scribbled three letters.

"What do you want? What are you after now?" I besought him desperately, and I would even have been willing to sleep with him had it been technically feasible. "You're blackmailing us, that's what you're doing..." and I put Smith-Jones's article down in front of him.

"I'm not asking for anything," he replied, "except for you to act the way I advise..." I could not understand him. How could I adapt my behaviour to unintelligible symbols and scribbles that I myself had begun to lose faith in? "I'll answer in three days," he said, and was silent. He gazed out of the window as though he were trying to concentrate on something. I was watching him by means of a special apparatus I had installed in my own room. He did not write more than two lines the whole night. And except for that he did not move at all. He had promised an answer, though, and so I sent off telegrams to both the professors and informed my superiors. The experiment was drawing to an end.

Next day he did not speak to me at all. He sat in his own room holding his head in his hands and whispering his responses into the dictaphone in a voice that was growing weaker and weaker. He had gone grey overnight. Can the final phase of knowledge be so terribly exhausting? I did not want to disturb him. The next morning he could no longer recognise me, and by evening his eyes were staring vacantly even at my daughter. I sat by his side all night. His responses were mere hissing sounds by now, and not even the most sensitive dictaphone could record them. At three in the morning he "died." At six Professor Smith-Jones arrived. At eight Professor Kozhevkin came. In vain. In time for the funeral.

We had to cremate him, you see. He should have been thrown on the scrap-heap like any other apparatus which is no longer in working order. In the last few days of his "life" he had made so many friends in the neighbourhood that I could not and would not explain my experiment to every one of them. The Crematory was packed, and I stood in a corner with the two visiting scientists; they could not help smiling quietly to themselves. How easy it is to deceive our fellow-men! So they would attend the funeral of a machine. They recommended my repeating the experiment. Outside the Crematory my daughter was waiting for me. She congratulated me.

"Can't you see that was his answer? He died. And before that he lived, he lived fully and wisely, feeling nothing but affection for those around him. Is not life itself the finest answer, life which we should never cramp and circumscribe? And is not the greatest wisdom of all death after a life lived to the full?"

She introduced her fiancÚ to me. I realised why she had not done so earlier. He worked on the same lunar station as my husband had been on, years before, He was a nice lad. We all went home together. The whole family. A week earlier I would have turned the two of them out. I don't like these fellows from the Moon. I don't know why. I've never really thought about it. All my life I've kept my thoughts strictly on my work, like so many other people. Perhaps my daughter was right, after all. In its way the disintegration of my biological system could really be an answer. Yet this same answer was given to us at the very outset of the experiment by the brain of Mrs. Anna Novak, housewife. Perhaps we really have neglected the art of living too much in recent years. It is an art and not a science. Yet calls for the deepest wisdom.

I felt that even a normally intelligent mind could grasp that simple fact.

And so I gave up experimenting with biological systems.

(from Vampires, Ltd.; translated by Iris Unwin from the Czech original Einsteinuv mozek, 1960)


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story copyright by Josef Nesvadba all rights reserved
reprinted with permission of author

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