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.
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!
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.
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.
“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
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.
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.