Never content to settle for an ordinary lecture, the Wellcome Collection have decided to let us discuss matters of interest over a shared repast in their new monthly Supper Club. No smalltalk over the table here: the first exploratory evening on Wednesday night asked diners to decide what it means to be a genius and why some of us are. To spur us on, neuroscientist Mark Lythgoe brought along a great story and a special guest.
The dinner spread, provided in the Wellcome café by accomplished caterers Peyton and Byrne, was a tasty affair in itself. A seasonally appropriate salad of pumpkin, blewit mushrooms and yarg preceded a choice of salmon or veggie Wellington. While the salmon had spent precious little time in the pan, the Wellington was a warming combination of spelt and white stilton.
The intellectual side of things began with an aimless icebreaker activity between table mates, but picked up as soon as Mark Lythgoe took the microphone. As much an entertainer as a neuroscientist, the speaker engaged his audience in the tale of Albert Einstein's brain, saved from the mathematician's head by an impulsive pathologist during autopsy, and of Lythgoe's journey across America in search of the organ.
While the programme promised that the brain itself would appear as a special guest, what showed up was not the grey matter but a precise resin model laser-sculpted from a virtual re-creation. This wasn't too grave a disappointment, as the original now exists in 240 separate slivers and the replica was an impressive four-year accomplishment in its own right — and easier to pass around the table. What's more, the reassembled super-brain actually held a visible clue to the whole puzzle. Rather than a platitude about genius being a matter not of what your brain looks like, but of what you do with it, Lythgoe actually concluded with a real and compelling new physiological hypothesis. We won't give it away here, but it certainly gave us something to mull over with our coffee and cake.