Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain

by Michael Paterniti

Hardcover, 2000

Call number




The Dial Press (2000), Edition: First Edition, 211 pages


Albert Einstein's brain floats in formaldehyde in a Tupperware® bowl in a gray duffel bag in the trunk of a Buick Skylark barreling across America. Driving the car is Michael Paterniti, a young journalist from Maine. Sitting next to him is an eighty-four-year-old pathologist named Thomas Harvey who performed the autopsy on Einstein in 1955--and simply removed the brain and took it home. And kept it for over forty years. On a cold February day, the two men and the brain leave New Jersey and light out on I-70 for sunny California, where Einstein's perplexed granddaughter, Evelyn, awaits. And riding along as the imaginary fourth passenger is Einstein himself, an id-driven genius, the original galactic slacker with his head in the stars. Part travelogue, part memoir, part history, part biography, and part meditation,Driving Mr. Albertis one of the most unique road trips in modern literature. With the brain as both cargo and talisman, Paterniti perceives every motel, truck-stop diner, and roadside attraction as a weigh station for the American dream in the wake of the scientist's mind-blowing legacy. Finally, inspired by the man who gave a skeptical world a glimpse of its cosmic origins, this extraordinary writer weaves his own unified field theory of time, love, and the power to believe, once again, in eternity.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member cbjorke
If there is a greater waste of time than taking Einstein's brain, in two Tupperware containers, on a cross country road trip, it could only be removing that brain during an autopsy in order to discover the source of Einstein's genius. Thomas Harvey, defrocked pathologist, did both of these things. He dedicated his life to them, in fact. Paterniti became his enabler, by going to interview Harvey and offering to drive the 85 year old retiree from his home in Princeton New Jersey to San Jose California in order to show the brain to Einstein's granddaughter, who really didn't want to see it.

It did provide Paterniti with a hook that he could hang a book proposal on, get him published and keep him from a lifetime of housepainting. It is a very readable book, a memoir of an uncomfortable cross country trip with an elderly stranger and has some funny incidents in which Paterniti confesses to strangers that they are transporting Einstein's brain in the trunk of their car. Harvey did fly back to New Jersey, presumable with the brain in his carry-on luggage, so there never was a need to actually drive the whole way, except to write a book about it.

Harvey's lifetime of research, with the help of various scientists with whom he has shared parts of the brain, is inconclusive. Einstein may have had more glial cells than average. The part of the brain associated with math, I didn't know there was such an organ, may have been somewhat larger that usual. Not much for 50 years of study. There is speculation in the book about cloning the brain. After half a century in formaldehyde there's no chance of that. That fact is kind of glossed over for the science fiction effect.

I'll Never Forget The Day I Read A Book!
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LibraryThing member sarradee
Very interesting, but could have been better. The story of the author's journey to California to visit Einstein's granddaughter with the pathologist who originally "stole" Einstein's brain at autopsy. As they ride around with pieces of Einstein's brain in the trunk, the author attempts to relate the story of why the brain was taken in the first place - research, of course - and what has been done with it all these many years - not all that much, some pieces have gone to other researc...more Very interesting, but could have been better. The story of the author's journey to California to visit Einstein's granddaughter with the pathologist who originally "stole" Einstein's brain at autopsy. As they ride around with pieces of Einstein's brain in the trunk, the author attempts to relate the story of why the brain was taken in the first place - research, of course - and what has been done with it all these many years - not all that much, some pieces have gone to other researchers and an article or two has been published but that's about it… (more)
LibraryThing member burningtodd
A book about the scientist that stole Einstein’s brain and the trip he took across the country to return it to Einstein’s Granddaughter. The book was full of interesting stuff, but mostly the author seemed pissed that he was put in the situation he was in and it tainted the book for me.
LibraryThing member LynnB
What an intriguing concept: driving across American to return Einstein's brain, stolen by pathologist Thomas S. Harvey, to Einstein's grandaughter, Evelyn. It's a good read, and if you've read about Einstein, you will notice subtle references to relativity theory in some of the author's comments. A little biography of Einstein, a little American folklore, a little biography of Dr. Harvey, a little memoire.....entertaining.… (more)
LibraryThing member irishwasherwoman
A quirky read which was a good book club choice and has a Maine connection
LibraryThing member rightantler
There are parts of this book I liked a lot. However I didn't really connect with Paterniti and in a book about a road trip that has to happen on some level. Although I had no trouble finishing the book I came away feeling it could have been a lot better. A shame really.
LibraryThing member djlimb
This book blends a lot of disparate elements, a biography of Einstein that could have been culled from an afternoon on wikipedia, an honest portrait of the eccentric brain robbing surgeon that ultimately leaves him an enigma, a quasi-beat style road book -even including a meeting with a delusional elderly Burroughs- with lousy images and tired philosophising on America and a completely unmoving description of the narrators quarter-life crisis and marital problems.
Yet it is still a good read. Like the slices of grey matter in the odd couples boot, it does add up to more than the sum of its parts, you do want to keep going, there are some very funny bits and it hits you as an honest book if not anything else.
Its full of anecdotes too, Paterniti seems to be the kind of bloke who likes to tell stories down the pub of bizarre humanity, fame and genius, and its infectious too, this books worth getting if only to nail the definitive Einstein's brain story yourself.
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LibraryThing member figre
I guess every author wants to be Jack Kerouac; find a premise for driving across America and then share that drive and a fresh batch of insights with eager readers who will find their lives similarly changed. (And, it is that same passion which leads to all the blogs and tweets and book reviews that have inundated the web – the desire to share and be listened to and be a part of change.) All this just to say that most people are not Jack Kerouac, and I’m not even convinced our current zeitgeist would support such work. And all that to say that authors should be incredibly careful when writing about road trips to tell only about the trip, not about the internal journey – unless you really are the next Kerouac. (And a quick side note for readers that we must be critical about how we join the authors on that journey.)

All preface to the fact that Driving Mr. Albert is a nice book with a fascinating premise. But the book’s occasional dippings into the life of its author - his personal fears and concerns - seem a bit too introspective and really don’t help the text tell the story that is eventually told. That story is Mr. Paterniti’s actual experience of driving Thomas Harvey across America to give a piece of Einstein’s brain to Evelyn – Albert’s granddaughter. Apparently the legend that Albert Einstein’s brain is in the hands of the gentleman who performed his autopsy is true, and Mr. Harvey is that gentleman. Paterniti tracked him down and, in the process of learning more about this bizarre yet fascinating part of science history, agreed to drive Mr. Harvey on the trip.

When the story is about the trip, it is fine. But the author’s side tracks into his personal experience and problems do not bring anything new to the narrative. His personal stories do not provide a good framework for the trip, nor does the trip provide a framework for understanding the author’s life. And, while the overall story of the trip is interesting, it does feel as though the author was struggling to hang the narrative on something – efforts that seemed somewhat forced and stilted. There is a good chance that this would have been a better book if the story of Einstein’s brain had just been allowed to be told as it occurred. And let the reader learn their own lessons from that narrative.
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LibraryThing member melydia
When Dr. Thomas Stoltz Harvey autopsied Albert Einstein in 1955, he removed the great scientist's brain, though whether he had the family's permission to do so remains in doubt. Either way, he kept the brain in his house, in a couple of cookie jars. When Paterniti learned of this, he sought out the elusive pathologist. When Harvey mentions his intentions of giving part of the brain to Einstein's niece Evelyn in California, Paterniti offers to drive him. Not quite as much of a romp as I'd hoped. I found myself a little nauseated every time he described the brain itself, which was in pieces, floating in formaldehyde. It doesn't help that Paterniti seems to want to present the brain as a sort of religious relic, but often falls short. The main draw for me was the opportunity for a vicarious cross-country road trip. Unfortunately, Paterniti and Harvey don't make for very interesting company.… (more)
LibraryThing member Othemts
I’m a sucker for the cross-country journey with a twist as my reading of I See By My Outfit proves. This book tells the story of a sensitive young man nearing the end of a long-term relationship who drives across America with an elderly pathologist and Albert Einstein’s brain - or a few chunks of it floating in formaldehyde in Tupperware containers in the trunk. The story of the trip – which includes a visit to William S. Burroughs among other things – is really the story of Dr. Thomas Harvery, of Albert Einstein, and most importantly Einstein’s iconic status in contemporary America.

“I was forever projecting myself forward and backward at the same time, negating the present moment, changing my mind with alarming frequency. A master of vicissitudes, … I couldn’t name my longing, and yet it was there, always driving me away from the place where I stood.” P. 14

“As it will happen in this single day, we will live through four seasons. Which can occur if one drives long enough with Einsteins’ brain in the trunk. Time bends, accelerates, and overlaps; it moves backward, vertically, then loops; simultaneity rules.” – p. 109

“’Science without religion is lame,’ Einstein once said, ‘religion without science is blind.’” – p. 126
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LibraryThing member iowabooker
This road trip across america is a fun read about two strangers. The relationship story is a bit of a bore to me, thats about the only negative about this book.
LibraryThing member davidpwithun
Very interesting, engaging, and bizarre read. It seems that everybody in Paternini's world is just a little crazy, and that's a good thing. I learned a lot about Einstein and his postmortem adventures as well...
LibraryThing member ccayne
Paterniti is a wonderful writer who tells quirky tales. I have read him in magazines and he combines humor and fact beautifully. Here, he combines, travel, the human condition and biography in a charming story. Dr. Harvey is certainly an enigma which makes for good storytelling. Paterniti is also going through a life change and this combination gives the story enough tension to drive the narrative.… (more)
LibraryThing member debbie.menzel
This is an interesting book. The author actually drives across America with a piece of Einstein's brain with him. Lots of information about Einstein and about why he has this piece of his brain.
LibraryThing member Bradley_Kramer
Amusing, but not as funny as I was led to believe. The road trip rings true, as the two carmates sometimes find themselves at odds. In the end, the cross-country trip seems pointless. There's no satisfying character arc, here. The only person who seems to learn anything is the reader, with an education about roadside attractions and Einstein trivia. The narrator struggles with the prospect of becoming a grownup, but the resolution to his problems are glossed over. Dr. Harvey doesn't change at all. And Einstein's brain, after 45 years of improper storage and a cross-country trip, it returns to the same hospital where it was harvested from its host in 1955.… (more)
LibraryThing member bnbookgirl
I enjoyed this book. Some of it was a bit "sciencey" for me, but it is about Einstein so, understandable. The parts about the road trip itself it really quite good. Some of the adventures are quite humorous and the two travelers are quirky and fun.
LibraryThing member sakismom
"Road" story of the author's journey with eccentric physician who, 40 years earlier, had done the autopsy of Einstein and, in the process, took the brain, which he kept in a jar of formaldehyde in his basement. I thought I would learn more about the doctor's motives, personality, etc., but after the 1st 40 or so pages, it began to drag & never got better. Didn't live up to my expectations.
1 star
Read 8/2000
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LibraryThing member memccauley6
A well written, entertaining, but unfocused read – this could have been a magazine article, it frequently felt like one which had been expanded to book length with numerous digressions and asides. (The author includes numerous references to famous body parts and corpses throughout history, informing the reader as to their final disposition at the time of publication.)

I am a lover of the unusual and absurd, but I must admit I was losing patience with this travelogue/biography well before the halfway point and frequently skimmed over descriptions of meals and encounters with other motorists.
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LibraryThing member PeggyK49
I had hopes that Driving Mr. Albert would make for an interesting read. After all, "A Trip Across America With Einstein's Brain", could have lots of potential. This book fell short of my expectations. The premise was "diluted" with side stories about the author's personal life. Every single time that happened, it took me out of the main storyline about Harvey, the brain and the trip, and left me flat. After happening several times, I "cheated" reading this book by skipping the parts that were to me very unenjoyable.… (more)
LibraryThing member Esta1923
Driving Mr. Albert
By Michael Paterniti

This is a book whose subtitle "A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain" tells all. (Well, almost all.) Journalist Paterniti won the National Magazine Award when it first appeared in Harper's Magazine.

My paperback edition has 207 pages, plus three of acknowledgements. It is the ultimate on-throad tale. Its background is strange but factual. The brain of the noted scientist had been kept by Thomas Harvey who did the autopsy: Paterniti did meet up with him: they did drive from the east coast to the west coast together: the brain was in the car trunk (tho Harvey took it with him into the motels where they stopped).

Harvey was an old men, accustomed to seclusion, Paterniti sought to foster a close relationship. As readers we learn a smattering of geography and psychology, science and history. It is worth the ride.
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