Dr. Eric Altschuler is doing serious damage to a jumbo helping of French toast and explaining the thrill of intellectual discovery. Think about the guy in the overflowing bathtub, he explains, a reference to Archimedes, who exuberantly cried “Eureka” when he seized upon his theorem about displacement and density.
“When you find one of these things, it’s an incredible moment of epiphany,” says Altschuler in a rising voice that startles fellow diners at a seaside cafe here.
As an indefatigable seeker of epiphany, Altschuler, with science degrees from Harvard, UC Davis and UC San Diego, has accumulated 60-plus published writings in a remarkably short span of time. In an era of specialization, this 33-year-old New Yorker--who loves baseball and Bach, is fluent in Greek and Latin, and craves a good debate about proteins and peptides--refuses to trim his scholarly sails.
Most of his published works are on topics that only a science wonk could love (or understand), with such titles as “Polyglutamine aggregates: a possible component of eosinophilic intranuclear inclusions in the hippocampal pyramidal neurons of a patient with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis?”
But every so often, Altschuler decides to aim some brain cells at an off-kilter topic. He likes to dabble with such non-burning questions as: Did Samson have antisocial personality disorder? Did Johann Sebastian Bach write the trumpet flourish credited to Gottfried Reiche? Who is the real author of the Bible’s Book of Ruth? Was it an earthquake that toppled the Tower of Babel?
While working in the last two years as a researcher on stroke rehabilitation at UC San Diego’s Brain and Perception Laboratory, Altschuler kept wondering about Samson, the Israelite hero and judge who was shorn and undone by the temptress Delilah.
From the Old Testament Book of Judges, he determined that Samson exhibited six out of seven criteria for diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder: failure to conform to social norms (torching the Philistines’ fields); lying (not telling his parents about slaying a lion); impulsiveness (torching the fields); brutality (to people and animals); reckless disregard for others (killing 1,000 Philistines); and lack of remorse (gloating).
The result was a paper in February’s issue of Archives of General Psychiatry arguing that Samson was a sociopath. Altschuler hopes the Samson discovery will help historians judge the outsized behaviors of historical figures.
Altschuler’s interest in the Bach-or-Reiche issue began when he was 12 and first heard the trumpet fanfare at the New York Public Library. In the intervening years, the short piece has become known as the thematic opener of “CBS Sunday Morning.”
The most compelling evidence that the piece was composed by Reiche, a contemporary of Bach’s and one of the finest trumpeters of the day, is a painting of Reiche done in 1727. In it, Reiche is seen holding the score, which musical historians have generally accepted as proof that he is the author. Altschuler is not buying.
Through textual analysis, he concluded that the trumpet flourish is not at all like Reiche’s other compositions. It is more like Bach, he said, in its syncopation, multiple eliding sequences and fast notes. Altschuler speculates that the piece was a present from Bach to Reiche, known as “Bach’s trumpeter,” on his 60th birthday. He notes in the portrait Reiche’s thumb is on the signatures of the composer, a possible sly joke between the two collaborators.
“It’s a great piece,” Altschuler said. “It’s kind of cool to discover a new Bach.” He and Bach go way back. While at Harvard, he wrote the well-received 1994 book “Bachanalia: The Essential Listener’s Guide to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier” (Little, Brown), with an introduction by renowned anthropologist Stephen Jay Gould, Altschuler’s senior advisor at Harvard.
In it, Altschuler looks at Bach’s 48 fugues with the statistical method of baseball analyst Bill James. “He’s got a great way of thinking,” Altschuler said. Harold Pashler, professor of psychology at UC San Diego, said that even in the rarefied academic atmosphere of the university setting, where mega-brains are commonplace and brilliance in large abundance, Altschuler stands out. “I have met almost nobody like him, he’s remarkable,” Pashler said.
Lest you consider Altschuler just a brainy nerd, consider this: At Harvard, along with getting degrees in math and physics, writing his Bach book, and working on the campus radio station, he was on the rowing team and an intramural baseball team. At Stuyvesant High School in New York, he was an offensive lineman on the football team. “Linemen are more cerebral than they’re given credit for,” he said.
This summer, Altschuler, his wife, Bettina, a social worker, and their toddler son, Benjamin, returned to New York, where Altschuler, who received a doctorate from UC Davis and his medical degree from UC San Diego, began an internship at the Brooklyn Hospital Center.
In September, a journal concerned with Near Eastern matters will publish Altschuler’s analysis of another authorship dispute: Who is the principal author of the Book of Ruth. Picking through the book line by line Altschuler has decided that it is the biblical figure Ahimaaz, son of Zadok the priest.
A few years ago he weighed in on possibly the most hotly contested authorship dispute of all: Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare? Based on texts and letters, he joined those who have decided that the most likely author was actually Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Among other bits of textual proof is the assertion that the plays show an inordinate knowledge of astronomy, a specialty of the highly educated earl.
An active mind, Altschuler notes, is never truly off-duty. The quest is exciting, the discovery is absolutely over the top. And where does he find the time to worry about Samson, Bach, et al? “I don’t require much sleep.”
In medicine his continuing mystery is what happens when someone suffers a stroke and what can be done to help them recover part of their mobility. He hopes to continue researching the subject--and, eventually, to treat stroke patients. Lack of knowledge about strokes is scientifically unacceptable, Altschuler said. “Hippocrates said nothing could be done for victims of stroke--which he called aphasia,” Altschuler said. “Here we are 2 1/2 millenniums later and, in most cases, that’s still true.”
He’s also finishing another Bach book and thinking of late about the significance of a key palindrome (in Greek, of course) in “The Iliad.”
“Homer was a clever guy,” Altschuler said. “This palindrome has not been previously discussed, or its importance appreciated.”
People who know Altschuler doubt that his intellectual zeal will flag with age.
“He’s got internal fire,” said his one-time advisor, Gould. “Internal fire does not go out.”