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July 10, 2020
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'Driving Mr. Albert: The Trip Across America With Einstein’s Brain' by Michael Paterniti
With Einstein's brain in the trunk, car trip takes thoughtful detours
Sunday, July 30, 2000
By John Freeman
A good journalist knows a story when he hears it, and several years back, Michael Paterniti heard one that was just too good to be true. A friend told Paterniti that the pathologist who performed Albert Einstein’s autopsy was alive; and, not only was he alive, he still had Einstein’s brain.
The story electrified him. After all, Einstein’s was arguably the greatest brain ever. Using that powerful machine, he discovered the photoelectric effect, relativity and, with one nod of his electrocuted head, made science cool for people worldwide. To touch Einstein’s brain, then, “would be to ride a ray of light, [to] clasp time itself.”
A few years ago when he was at a personal and professional crossroads and had some time on his hands, Paterniti tracked down Thomas Harvey, Einstein’s pathologist. He turned out to be a “slightly awkward, nervously chuckling half doctor,” who lived in a basement in Princeton, N.J.
Sure enough, he had the brain. It didn’t take much cajoling for Harvey to allow Paterniti a visit. After a little show-and-tell, the young journalist was hooked. He visited again. And again. When Harvey let slip that business was calling him “out West,” Paterniti said he’d drive.
Thus begins “Driving Mr. Albert,” one of the most fascinating and memorable road trips since “On the Road.” With Harvey riding shotgun and the brain floating in formaldehyde in the trunk, Paterniti drives us deep into America’s heartland, pausing to give us fascinating portraits of the relatives, scientists and fanatics bobbing in Einstein’s wake.
Road trips can be monotonous endeavors, but thanks to Paterniti’s gorgeous prose, this one has few such moments. He writes of “Chicago rising out of the Midwest like huge metallic cornstalks”; the “moody, inward beauty” of the Atlantic; and Pennsylvania with the “Allegheny Mountains rising like dark whales out of the earth.”
While these vivid descriptions make “Driving Mr. Albert “a pleasant read, Paterniti’s intelligence makes it an important one. He uses Einstein’s brain as a talismanic metaphor for life, asking the big questions:
Why are we here? What do we do with our time? And how do we measure greatness?
In Paterniti’s eyes, no one makes these questions more poignant than Harvey does. The Yale graduate was in the prime of his career, on the staff of Princeton Hospital, when he performed the 1955 autopsy of the great scientist, who had lived in the college town.
He kept the brain, ostensibly, to run some tests on it. Then he was fired, later lost his medical license and, as Paterniti describes, “more than three decades after Einstein’s death, he found himself living anonymously in Lawrence, [Kan.,] working in a plastics factory, sleeping on the bed of a fold-out couch ... with perhaps the century’s greatest brain on his shelf.”
As funny as that image sounds, beneath it lay Paterniti’s great pathos for the quiet failures endured by us all. Even Einstein, Paterniti writes, ran into one failure after the next after his spurt of creativity. In that way, he is much like Harvey.
So it is fitting that, in the end, Paterniti draws his deepest lessons from Harvey. How beneath all our desire to be recognized is an equally strong desire to be loved. And how both those inclinations, due to the relativity of time, grow stronger as you age. As Paterniti’s father says to him wistfully before he hits the road: “When you’re young, time takes forever. ... Then it starts flying. And suddenly, you’d give anything for 10 more years.”
This book contains dozens of similarly pithy statements, but in true Einstein fashion, it provides more questions than answers. After all, life is a journey, and the fun is in getting there. It’s a lesson Paterniti continually and wonderfully reminds us of on his unforgettable trip.
John Freeman is a free-lance reviewer who lives in New York City.
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