In what’s being “the Lance Armstrong story all over again, except that it’s about science instead of professional cycling, and it doesn’t involve drugs,” the brain of famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is facing accusations it was photoshopped.
MRI images of Tyson’s brain featured in a recent Scientific American article drew the attention of Dr. Leon Ostrow, a New York City radiologist. Ostrow says he became acquainted with the brain in 2012 when the 56-year-old “Cosmos” host was getting cerebral glamor shots for his academic portfolio. When Ostrow saw the recent photos, he knew right away something was fishy.
“In these new pics, the brain’s prefrontal cortex is a lot bigger than I remembered it, and it’s way more wrinkled,” Ostrow reported to Popular Science. “There’s no doubt the whole frontal lobe was totally photoshopped.”
If the charges of digital enhancement are proven true, Tyson’s brain could be stripped of the dozens of awards it has received over the years, including NASA’s “Big Big Big Brain” prize, as well as National Geographic’s “Sexiest In Vivo Brain” title.
Ingrid Dekker, spokesperson for the Hayden Planetarium where Tyson’s brain serves as director, says any modifications to the images published in Scientific American were not approved by Tyson’s mouth, insisting the magazine’s graphic designers should be blamed.
“Dr. Tyson is more than comfortable with his brain, which I can assure you is very big and full of thick, innumerable wrinkles,” Dekker said.
However, Scientific American editor Marina DiLuzio denies that anyone on her staff modified the brain images, saying her publication has a strict no-photoshopping policy when it comes to major human organs.
“We believe a brain in its natural state is beautiful, no matter how big or small, grey or white,” DiLuzio said during an impromptu interview. “As everyone knows, it’s not the size of the brain that matters, but how you use your neurons and synapses.”
“Cortical thickness and myelination also play a role,” she added.
“We don’t give in to personal power plays or laboratory politics,” she also added.
“Stop pestering me,” she then said.
“Really, or I’ll call the police,” she said, disappearing into the 14th Street subway station, her thick black curls bounding behind her.
Critics argue this scandal proves how truly fierce the world of competitive science is, where everyone from undergraduate chemistry students to Nobel laureates faces intense pressure to have large, excessively folded brains.
“I’m on the phone with the cops right not,” DiLuzio shouted from the bottom of the stairs, coyly masking her flirtations.
“It’s a tough life,” says Donald Popovic, the 2004 Science Olympics champion who was stripped of his title after it was revealed he had surgically packed his skull with illicit grey matter. “Even when you’re in high school, science teachers gush over that one kid whose enormous cranium is suggestive of a powerful encephalon, and it makes all the other aspiring teenage scientists feel like crap.”
Most people would agree the pressure to sport a large brain is embedded in the culture of science, evidenced by the disturbing number of graduate students who get silicone implants in their temples and foreheads. Also, as most academics know, the decision to give tenure to one professor over another is often based on nothing more than cranial circumference.
“Every distinguished chair of this, or professor emeritus of that, is familiar with the old salt trick,” said one famous linguist and cognitive scientist from Harvard. “You always carry a salt shaker wherever you go — to increase your sodium levels on the fly, retain more water, make your head look larger, and give everyone the impression you’re the owner of an impressive 17-centimeter-long neural network.”
“Most non-scientists can’t imagine what it’s like giving a conference talk to 500 of your critical peers,” he said, “and the whole time you’re looking at their bulging brains, asking yourself, ‘Do they think mine looks small?’”
This is not the first time such a scandal has rocked the science world. After winning a Nobel Prize for physics in 1903, Marie Curie was accused of wearing an unnecessarily large hat to make others think she had a freakishly busty set of circuitry in her head. It is rumored that famed physicist Stephen Hawking prefers a tousled hairstyle to make his brain look bigger — increasing the likelihood his articles will get published in top journals.
Even if the allegations swirling around Tyson’s brain are confirmed, and the ICSU hands down the maximum sentence of five years of dull labor in the imprecise social sciences, many insiders say it will do little to deter others from breaking the rules to make their brains look bigger.
“We scientists are a catty, superficial lot, and no matter what anyone says, we only want one thing,” said a particle physicist who works for the European Organization for Nuclear Research. “We want to be on the cover of Discover magazine, yielding our fearsome neural networks for all the world to envy.”