PD Smith

Einstein’s eyes

04 June 2007 | Einstein, Ings, photography, pop science, Reviewing, Science | Post a comment

When Albert Einstein died in 1955 his brain was removed, apparently for medical research. What is less well known is that his ophthalmologist, Henry Abrams, also cut out the great physicist’s eyes.

“The whole thing took about 20 minutes,” he said later. “I just needed scissors and forceps.”

Apparently, Abrams keeps the eyes in a bottle in a New Jersey bank. He told one of Einstein’s biographers that “when you look into his eyes you’re looking into the beauties and mysteries of the world.”

einstein's eyes

(Okay, so these aren’t really Einstein’s pickled eyes in this picture. After my biography of the relativity maestro was published my sister gave this to me as a delightfully ghoulish gift. But of course it’s the thought that counts.)

Eyes and seeing are the subject of two very different but equally fascinating new books that I’ve been reviewing. They are: The Eye: A Natural History by Simon Ings, and Vanities of the Eye: Vision in Early Modern European Culture by Stuart Clark.

Simon Ings tells the “sprawling and epic story” of the eye – a 538 million-year history from the crystal eyes of the prehistoric trilobites to our very own “squishy vertebrate eyes”.

Ings cover

On the way he explores the physics of other more exotic eyes, such as that of the dragonfly Anax junius. This creature is blessed with the densest compound eye on the planet – made up of no less than 28,500 “ommatidia”, or mini camera-type eyes. Spare a thought for the poor naturalist who had to count them all! Among the other weird eyes he discusses is the brittlestar (Ophiocoma wendtii) which “is one huge complex eye, its whole surface punctured by little eyespots linked by nerve bundles running just under the skin”.

There’s no doubt that The Eye: A Natural History is a feast of science and history. But for my taste it’s rather too rich a diet. The encyclopaedic coverage of the book tends to weaken the narrative. But if you’re looking for one big book to tell you everything about the eye, then this may well be the one for you.

Stuart Clark’s study is aimed at a more scholarly market. But if phrases like “the language of veridicality” or “ocularcentrism” don’t put you off, then this fascinating cultural history has much to offer.


His theme is how people in Europe came to distrust the evidence of their own eyes in the early modern period (the 15th to the 17th centuries). The veracity of vision was unsettled by beliefs about how demons could trick our eyes.

According to Clark, people viewed the Devil as “a consummate still life artist, able to deceive the viewer into confusing an image of something for the thing itself”.

Apparently one of the Devil’s wickedest wiles was the illusory stealing of penises.

From madness and magic to dreams and demons, Vanities of the Eye is a detailed and densely argued account of the visual culture of this formative period. Clark’s findings will make a significant contribution to our understanding of the rhetoric of the Reformation and the scepticism which fuelled the Scientific Revolution. It is an impressive piece of research and a book which will open your eyes to a new aspect of intellectual history.

Most of us take seeing for granted. After all, what is there think about? You open your eyes and it’s all, well, there. But as both of these books show, vision is a complex and subtle process. And seeing has a compelling history – both biological and cultural.

You can read the published review for the Guardian here.


I used to be professionally concerned with vision – I was a photographer.

This was one of my more commercially successful pictures, taken in Somerset.

(And just in case anyone wonders: No, we don’t all live in thatched houses in England.)

There’s more of my photos on Flickr if you’re interested. I keep meaning to add some more…

Remember the bamboo I mentioned in my first TNB post? Well, it’s now planted and doing fine.

Which is more than can be said for my back after excavating the hole in our back garden. The ground turned out to be mostly brick and stone. I guess that’s what happens if you buy a house built on industrial land.

yellow groove bamboo

Actually some of the stones in the hole were rather beautiful pebbles.


I’ve often wondered how long it takes a river or the sea to create such perfectly smooth pebbles. Not quite as long, perhaps, as it took nature to come up with the eye...

[originally posted on The Nervous Breakdown]

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