Michael Paterniti is an award-winning journalist and former executive editor of Outside. He won the 1998 National Magazine Award (NMA) for his article “Driving Mr. Albert,” which was published in Harper’s Magazine in 1997. He was also nominated for the NMA in 1999 for his inspiring profile about American heroes, an epic story that takes Paterniti from the Sudan to St. Petersburg Beach in Florida. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, Details, andEsquire.
In Driving Mr. Albert, Paterniti tackles the tough job of stretching his award-winning Harper’s story about the legend of Albert Einstein’s brain to the length of a book. He does so with much success, but also some failures. On the positive side, the book is entertaining, psychologically rich, emotionally sophisticated, humorous, informative, and touching. Paterniti’s original meditations about love, fate, the nature of genius, and other basic concepts that everyone clings to for meaning in life provide moments of self-discovery and regeneration for the reader. Along the way, Paterniti explores some soul-searching questions, including why humans are here, what they should do with their time, and how they measure greatness. Containing doses of science, history, and cultural critique, the book is one of the most unusual road trips in modern literature. Paterniti skillfully weaves many biographical facts about Albert Einstein and his scientific discoveries into the quirky narrative of an offbeat journey.
On the negative side, because of the manufactured nature of the story, the book is flawed with a lot of superfluous padding. Too much time is spent reflecting on the troubled private histories of Harvey, Paterniti, and Einstein. By proposing some strange, mystical questions, such as what Einstein might think about President Bill Clinton, Governor Jesse Ventura, silicone breast implants, or penis augmentations, Paterniti leads the reader down a seemingly fruitless road and places the great scientist in some rather peculiar and mundane situations. Even though the reader is faced with probably more unanswered questions than answers after finishing the book, the overall journey is well worth the read.
After Albert Einstein died on April 18, 1955, Dr. Thomas Harvey, the chief pathologist at Princeton Hospital, performed an autopsy on the physicist. He concluded that Einstein had died from a burst aneurysm in the abdominal aorta. Without permission or immediate opposition, Harvey cut a circular incision in Einstein’s skull, removed his brain, and took it home with him to study for its scientific value. Harvey dissected Einstein’s brain into 240 pieces and put them in his basement in mason jars containing formaldehyde. Although he promised to publish his findings in medical journals, he never got around to doing much research on the gray matter. From time to time he would slice off a few small pieces of the brain and parcel them out for analysis to brain researchers around the world.
Since Harvey would not relinquish Einstein’s brain to Princeton Hospital, among other reasons, he was fired in 1960 and lost his medical license. He eventually left New Jersey and took the brain with him to Lawrence, Kansas, where he worked for many years in a plastics factory. Because of his zealous dedication to Einstein’s brain, Harvey’s life was often unsettled. As a result, he went through three divorces. As his troubled life continued to spiral downward, the scientific community generally referred to him as a thief, renegade, crackpot, jerk, and/or sham artist. Eventually he left Kansas and returned to Princeton, New Jersey, in 1995.
Michael Paterniti, a young journalist and house painter, had often wondered about the mythical story associated with Einstein’s brain. He initially heard the story while he was serving in the Gulf War. During a casual conversation with his landlord, Paterniti received further enlightenment about the bizarre story and the whereabouts of Harvey. Since at the time he was between jobs and felt a compulsion to find Harvey, Paterniti drove from his home in Portland, Maine, to Princeton and eventually located Harvey in 1995. Harvey was eager to tell Paterniti the story of Einstein’s brain.
Over several months, Paterniti and Harvey become well acquainted. When Harvey tells Paterniti that he needs to go to California to take care of some unfinished business matters, Paterniti offers to chauffeur Harvey there. As it turns out, the primary business is to take the brain to Einstein’s granddaughter Evelyn, who is living in Berkeley, California. Harvey hopes to reconcile any differences with her over his extraction of her grandfather’s brain and his keeping it for the past forty years.
In February, 1997, Paterniti picks up Harvey at his home in New Jersey to begin their journey across America. The quirky Harvey answers the door...
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