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

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

by Michael Paterniti
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Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip across America with Einstein's Brain by Michael Paterniti

Albert Einstein's brain floats in a Tupperware bowl in a gray duffel bag in the trunk of a Buick Skylark barreling across America. Driving the car is journalist Michael Paterniti. Sitting next to him is an eighty-four-year-old pathologist named Thomas Harvey, who performed the autopsy on Einstein in 1955 — then 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. Albert is one of the most unique road trips in modern literature.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385333030
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/05/2001
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 1,299,074
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Michael Paterniti won the 1998 National Magazine Award for his article "Driving Mr. Albert," which was first published in Harper's Magazine. A former executive editor of Outside, his work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, Details, and Esquire, where he is writer-at-large. He lives in Portland, Maine, with his wife and son.

Read an Excerpt

On a cold winter day, during one of my early visits to Dr. Harvey, we drove around Princeton, making the obligatory pilgrimage to 112 Mercer Street, the house where Einstein spent the last twenty years of his life. We sat for awhile with the car running, warm air pouring from the heater, gazing at a modest wood-frame colonial with black shutters on a pleasant block of like houses. More than anything, Einstein said he loved the old place for the light that filled the upstairs rooms and for the gardens out back. He kept pictures of Michaelangelo and Schopenhauer hanging in his study, because, as he said, both men had escaped an everyday life of raw monotony and taken "refuge in a world crowded with images of our own creation."

Sitting in the car, Thomas Harvey recalled hoew the Einstein family gathered here after the scientist's death, how his son, Hans Albert, and Einstein's longtime assistant, Helen Dukas, and Einstein's executor, Otto Nathan, as well as a small group of intimates, drove to a secret spot along the Delaware and scattered the ashes that remained of Albert Einstein's body, And that was it.

Not surprsingly, however, controversy immediately enshrouded the removal of Einstein's brain. Word was leaked by Harvey's former teacher Dr. Zimmerman that Harvey had Einstein's brain, and that he, Zimmerman, was expecting to receive it from his student. When this was reported in The New York Times a day after Einstein's death, Hans Albert, who knew nothing of his father's brain having been removed, was flabbergasted. Otto Nathan expressed regret and shock, and later implied that Harvey was a bald-faced thief. But, according to Harvey, Nathan, who died in 1984, stood by the door of the morgue, watching the entire autopsy. (Nathan would later claim he didn't know what Harvey was up to.)

Meanwhile, Harvey announced in a press conference that he was planning to conduct medical research on the brain. He says he spoke to Hans Albert over the phone, assuring him the brain would be studied for its scientific value, which would then be reported in a medical journal, thus allaying one of the deepest fears of the Einstein family: that the brain would becom a pop-cultural gewgaw. "My one regret is that I didn't come to Mercer Street and talk to Hans Albert in person," Harvey told me that day. "You know, clear things up before it got out of hand."

But things were already out of hand. Zimmerman, then on staff at New York's Montefiore Medical Center, prepared for the delivery of Einstein's brain, but it never arrived. Increasingly flummoxed, then angry and embarrassed, Zimmerman found out that Princeton Hospital, under the direction of a man named John Kauffman, had decided not to relinquish it. "Hospitals Tiff over Brain of Einstein," read one 1955 headline, and went on to describe how the brain remained at "the center of a jurisdictional dispute," with Princeton Hospital standing its ground, like an old-time gunfighter, claiming "the brain wouldn't be taken out of town."

But then, a few years after the autopsy, Harvey was fired from his job for allegedly refusing to give up Einstein's brain to Kauffman. In fact, Harvey had kept the brain himself, not at the hospital, but at home, and when he left Princeton he simply took it with him. Years passed. There were no studies or findings. And, in turn, no legal action was brought against Harvey, as there was no precedence in the courts for the recovery of a brain under such circumstances. And then Harvey fell off the radar screen. When he gave an occasional interview — in local newspaper articles from 1956 and 1979 and 1988 — he always repeated that he was about "a year from finishing study on the specimen."

Four decades later, there's still no study. And because somewhere in his watery blue eyes, his genial stumble-footing, and that ineffable cloak of hunched integrity that falls over the old, I find myself feeling for him and can't bring myself to ask the essential questions: Is he a grave-robbing thief or a renegade? A sham or a shaman?

What People are Saying About This

Bob Shacochis

The last great post-modern fin de millennium road trip.
—(Bob Shacochis, author of Easy in the Islands)

Reading Group Guide

1. In the book's epigraph, what traits does Virginia Woolf include for her portrait of a "splendid mind?"

2. What parallels did you detect between Einstein's life and Harvey's?

3. Driving Mr. Albert unfolds in some ways like a detective story. What mysteries emerged throughout the book? Were all of them solved?

4. Do you think Thomas Harvey's true motivation in taking this trip was to deliver the brain to Evelyn? Did he and Michael Paterniti share any unspoken personal goals at this point in their lives? What conflicts was Paterniti able to resolve through this trip?

5. What did Part One tell you about the author's upbringing? Did his roots prepare him well for this episode in his life? Did his roots in fact lead him to this episode?

6. How would you characterize Harvey's take on history, as revealed at stops such as the Harry S Truman Presidential Library?

7. Does Harvey seem like a likely character for William S. Burroughs's circle? What portraits of a mind are delivered in chapter 10, "Dr. Senegal, I Presume?"

8. What does the Garden of Eden tour indicate about human perceptions of death and the spectrum of mortuary practices undertaken in America? How did the museum's mission differ from Harvey's?

9. In Chapter 14, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Meat," Paterniti theorizes that Kenji Sugimoto is really Harvey's alter ego. Do you agree?

10. When Harvey lectures before a rowdy audience in San Jose, the experience captures many contemporary issues, including the challenge of engaging students in science. What does Harvey's presentation teach us about reaching a new generation of potential Einsteins?

11. How did you react to Roger Richman and the concept of Einstein's image now being represented by a celebrity-licensing agent?

12. What images of love and relationships are presented in Driving Mr. Albert? How is Paterniti affected by watching the reunion with Raye? What observations does he offer about Einstein's capacity for love?

13. Despite his occasional fears that someone may try to steal the brain, Paterniti often told strangers about his cargo. What are his expectations in making these revelations? How might you have reacted if you had been one of the bystanders he told?

14. How does Evelyn's perspective on the brain differ from the others encountered in the book? How significant is the question of whether she is indeed Einstein's genetic descendant?

15. Discuss the science of Einstein in relation to the book. What metaphors can you find for his notion that all energy has mass? How is the theory of relativity reflected in the way time unfolds for Einstein's brain over its decades-long journey? If his famous equation e=mc2 were applied to the events of your life, how would you define the constant?

16. Reading the book as biography, what new facts did you discover about Einstein's life? How did this depiction of him differ from the one perpetuated by pop culture?

17. What is it about the American road trip that made for such a good medium in exploring Einstein and the story of his brain? Why are so many memorable narratives set against the backdrop of the open road with its chain motels and speed traps?

18. What does Einstein's decision against surgery indicate about his mind-set regarding medicine and mortality at that point in his life? Do you think Einstein would have approved of Harvey as the guardian of his brain?

19. Can a holy grail for intelligence (or any other similar trait) be contained in a specimen such as Einstein's brain? What might a new generation of neuroscientists and pathologists (such as Elliot Krauss, Harvey's final beneficiary) be able to accomplish with Einstein's brain? What twenty-first-century pressures will they face?

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Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip across America with Einstein's Brain 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Driving Mr. Albert was a hot and cold book, but overall was an enjoyable read. The book has an intriguing beginning. Two men set out to deliver Albert Einstein¿s brain to his remaining family. How did these men come about the brain? The answer to this question is found in bits and pieces throughout the first half of the book. Thomas Harvey came about the brain during Einstein¿s autopsy, and put it into a jar and claimed it as his property. The first half of the book consisted of history on Einstein and his accomplishments and about Harvey¿s life since he took the brain. The first half is the interesting half however the second half consists of a lot of bird walking by Michael Paterniti, the author as well as the driver of the vehicle traveling cross country. For instance, he talks about his concerns with his girlfriend and the life they¿ve shared and so on. He also talks about his frustrations with Harvey¿s unknown resistance to show him the brain. At times it¿s interesting, and at times it¿s so boring you¿re better off skipping a few paragraphs or pages.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Einstein's stolen brain serves as a platform for some of the best writing I've read in a while. He doesn't stop with just a great story; that is just the stage for the real story: the meaning of life. The writer draws meaning from the waitress at the waffle house, the music playing on the car radio, the clothes someone wears. This symbolism tucked within observation never feels overdone¿at face value he is just describing his journey from one coast to the other by car. But he never seems to waste a description¿everything seems to tie together into meaning or purpose. In hindsight, this is an ironic discovery for a man so consumed by a search for meaning and purpose. His perception of the world around him is matched with excellent research about Einstein. We learn the global reach this genius had on culture. Excellent read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Although the synopsis for this book sounds promising (road-trip, whodunnit, scientific contemplation and interesting-facts-about-Einstein-and-the-life-of-his-brain) I found myself quite disappointed when I was through reading it. To me... it just doesn't have the glue to bind all those ingredients together in a good read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is fabulous. takes you across the country with a young author and an old pathologist. amazing.