Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Pouring over Einstein’s brain

with 20 comments

Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna in ...

Image via Wikipedia

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Look at this from September’s issue of the BBC science magazine Focus:

In the six decades since his death, neurologists have poured over his (Einstein’s) brain in the hope of discovering the biological basis for his talent.

I think the writer needs to pore over his dictionary a bit more.

The difference between ‘pour’ and ‘pore’ has previously been highlighted here at Wordwatch Towers.

However, confusing the two seems particularly unforgivable in a BBC publication. Especially in a feature entitled ‘How to spot a genius’. (Also, why use the relatively lukewarm word ‘talent’ when the whole point of the article is to discuss ‘genius’?)

Just a couple of sentences after his description of neurologists in liquid form, the writer churns out the following:

If the secret of genius can’t be found in one of its best examples, then it begs the question, where can we look to find it?

‘Begs the question’ has also been previously discussed. What does it mean? Why not just say ‘asks’ or ‘raises’ the question? Why is the phrase used at all in the above example? The sentence would work just as well, if not better, without it. (‘Look to’ is also redundant there.)

The BBC, eh? Fings ain’t what they used to be.


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20 Responses

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  1. Morning Deborah,

    Perhaps they’re cannibals, and what they were pouring was ketchup?

    Or maybe the Beeb is hiring copywriters from the Grauniad online edition.

    As an aside (delete if you like), how do you like your new stats graph? The children at WP now seem to think we’re too dumb to comprehend a simple line, so they’ve coloured it in for us. Way too much time on their hands.



    15/09/2010 at 9:10 am

    • Hi, Ron — I like your theories — the Grauniad one being more likely, I think. I just saw the coloured graphs — lovely. (At first, I thought the page wasn’t loading properly.)


      15/09/2010 at 9:15 am

  2. Me too – I reloaded the page.

    Most dates are lost, though, and those that remain are, somewhat arbitrarily, every five days – why not every Sunday, for example, so that a week’s trends can be seen at a glance? As it is, without a calendar, it’s a pain.

    Re the Grauniad, I reported a couple of factual errors to the Readers’ Editor last week, one serious, one less so, and both remain uncorrected.


    15/09/2010 at 9:26 am

  3. “(Also, why use the relatively lukewarm word ‘talent’ when the whole point of the article is to discuss ‘genius’?)”

    “Talent” as in “an innate ability” works for me, though I agree it’s not the best choice – these days someone’s likely to think he ran a song and dance act on the side . . .


    15/09/2010 at 9:35 am

  4. Hi, Ron – the Guardian‘s standards are definitely slipping, sad to say. Perhaps they don’t even employ sub-editors anymore — it certainly looks that way sometimes.

    I’m not so sure about ‘talent’ being used there. ‘Genius’ being much more than an ‘innate ability’, I think. The ODE definition of ‘genius’ is ‘exceptional intellectual or creative power’.


    15/09/2010 at 12:33 pm

  5. Pour for pore appears in edited text now and then, but normally in the context of reading something. This example from the BBC is particularly unfortunate because it evokes such a memorable and absurd image. Poor Einstein’s brain.


    15/09/2010 at 5:19 pm

    • Hi, Stan — yes, and it appeared in the first couple of pars of the feature as well and so easy to spot by a sub. Very slack. Always seems worse when it’s the BBC — I’m not sure why, though, as some of the corporation’s online stuff is appalling. Thanks, Stan.


      15/09/2010 at 5:25 pm

    • Oddly enough, ‘pouring’ over a book presents a fitting visual, if you picture someone absolutely engrossed in a book – kind of pouring themselves into it. Or perhaps I just need some coffee.


      16/09/2010 at 12:21 pm

      • Hi, Jo — that’s very poetic and evocative!


        16/09/2010 at 12:26 pm

        • Thanks Deborah. Is there anything as satisfying as a really, really good book? I think not.


          16/09/2010 at 3:27 pm

          • Absolutely. I do a lot of pouring over books. Perhaps we should start a suggested reading list…

            One of my all-time favourites: George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I’ve read it about 7,000 times.


            16/09/2010 at 3:33 pm

            • I did that on my website – copied over to my blog later – but enthusiasm waned. Still, I’m up for it



              17/09/2010 at 5:49 pm

              • Thanks, Ron. Lovecraft is always interesting — both his life and his work.


                17/09/2010 at 6:52 pm

                • Yes, it’s remarkable how much of his own life found its way into his work – his own home, in Providence, in The Haunter of the Dark, for example, and his grandfather, thinly disguised as Elihu Whipple, in The Shunned House (if memory serves).


                  17/09/2010 at 7:40 pm

            • Ahh, nice choice. I struggled through Silas Marner in grade 10 and for a long time was generally wary of George Eliot..however, I did read Middlemarch about 10 years ago and loved it. I’ll stop there, because I could go on (and on and on) about favourite books.


              18/09/2010 at 12:10 am

              • Hi, Jo — yes, I’m not so keen on Eliot’s other work, except Daniel Deronda (a flawed masterpiece, imho). Funnily enough, I recently listened to a Silas Marner talking book — much easier to listen to than to read. It’s a bit sentimental and overcooked, though.


                18/09/2010 at 8:53 am

  6. I hope the BBC explains how someone ended up with Einstein’s brain. Do they have other long-term plans for it?

    Michael Farrell

    15/09/2010 at 5:56 pm

    • Hi, Michael – thereby hangs a tail. Here’s part of what Wikipedia has to say about it:

      Einstein’s brain was removed, weighed and preserved by Thomas Stoltz Harvey, the pathologist who performed the autopsy on Einstein. …Harvey injected 10% formalin through the internal carotid arteries and afterwards suspended the intact brain in 10% formalin. Harvey photographed the brain from many angles. He then dissected it into roughly 240 blocks (each about 1 cm3) and encased the segments in a plastic-like material called collodion. Harvey also removed Einstein’s eyes, and gave them to Henry Abrams. He was fired from his position at Princeton Hospital shortly thereafter for refusing to relinquish the organs.



      15/09/2010 at 6:03 pm

      • So not fired for being a totally unhinged, organ-harvesting, ghoul then?


        15/09/2010 at 11:25 pm

        • Mere peccadillos. Actually, I think he was fiddling his expenses and the organs thing was just an excuse to get rid of him.


          16/09/2010 at 8:20 am

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