Driving Mr. Albert

Michael Paterniti

Driving Mr. Albert

“I first heard the story of Albert Einstein's brain as an urban myth too weird to believe. A friend had a friend who'd heard about it from someone else living in Roswell or Sedona or somewhere like that, a bit of geographical detail that was meant to lend either credibility or incredibility to the yarn, I couldn't tell which. My friend told me about it during a commercial break while we were watching the Gulf War, which would have made me about twenty-five years old at the time. And somehow, the war and the brain conflated in my mind. Even now, when I imagine Einstein's dendrites and neurons firing as his brain lit upon relativity, I picture Baghdad, with its minarets and modern-antennaed buildings sparkling beneath thousands of phantasmagorical traces, under Allied attack on a very dark night.”

So begins the singular odyssey chronicled in Michael Paterniti's Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain. Part memoir, part travelogue, part biography, part history, and even part meditation, this quirky little book tells something of the story of Thomas Harvey, the pathologist who performed the autopsy on Einstein in 1955 – and simply removed the brain and took it home. And kept it for over forty years.

“Even the FBI kept track of Harvey, clipping occasional articles about the pathologist and Einstein's brain, and adding them to the secret file on Einstein. If J. Edgar Hoover thought Albert Einstein was dangerous alive, it's quite possible he also found him dangerous in death. After all, the idea of Einstein's brain finding its way to the Soviet Union, to the Brain Institute, where Lenin's brain had already been sliced, diced, and secretly studied, would have been chilling in a Cold War environment where anything from a Martian invasion to a world-death machine seemed as immediately possible as the cloning of the world's greatest brain.”

During a time when he is between jobs, Paterniti encounters Harvey and offers to drive him across country, carrying the brain with them in the trunk of their car, a Buick Skylark.

“We make quite a pair, Harvey and I do. Even if we are more than a half century apart in age, he born under the star of William Howard Taft and I under the napalm bomb of Lyndon Baines Johnson, if he wears black, size-seven Wallabees with purple socks and I sport space-age sunglasses and a tuft of chin hair, if he has his gaggle of ex-wives, ten children and step-children and twelve grandchildren and I have yet to procreate,we begin to think together, to make unconscious team decisions. We both drink from bottles of seltzer, a hedge, says Harvey, against “GI upset.” We read the same billboards and register the same passing drivers – a man in a turban, driving a Lincoln Town Car, smoking a cigarette like a mobster; a kid who looks fourteen driving a beat-up hearse. And the most important common denominator of all, we eat the same food. A deluxe omelette at Perkins, a Frosty at Wendy's. And every time we do the drive-through at McDonald's, angling for a Coke and small fries to keep us for the afternoon, I feel like screaming: We have Einstein's brain in the trunk!

But who would believe me?”

Driving Mr. Albert is the story of a road trip unique in modern literature. In Paterniti's words, the brain is both cargo and talisman and the author perceives every motel, every truck-stop diner, and every roadside attraction as a weigh station for the American dream in the wake of Einstein's mind-blowing legacy. Be sure to read all about it.

Copyright © 2004, S. Halversen.
All Rights Reserved.