“Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America With Einstein’s Brain”

A journalist and a pathologist take off for California toting the greatest scientific brain of the 20th century as cargo.

Topics: Books,

Michael Paterniti has more talent than he knows what to do with, and I mean that literally. His first book, “Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America With Einstein’s Brain,” gleams with good phrases (sample: Albert Einstein “looked as if he’d just smoked an exploding cigar”), and its cross-continental-road-trip structure gives him all the sunsets, snowfalls and amber-waves grandeur that any ardent young journalist could desire.

Several years ago, at a period when Paterniti was at loose ends, he hooked up with Thomas Stolz Harvey, an octogenarian former pathologist whose single claim to fame was that he performed the autopsy on Einstein in 1955 and then, in an ethically dubious coda, made off with the physicist’s brain. Paterniti would drive down from Maine, where he was living with his girlfriend, to Harvey’s house near Princeton, and when one day Harvey mentioned that he had some business to attend to “out West,” the young journalist offered to drive him and the brain to California.

Hence this alluringly capacious book. In the course of documenting their travels the author gets to draw on information about Einstein’s life; scientific speculation on Einstein’s theories and on the nature of the human brain; an earlier film documentary about Einstein’s brain; Harvey’s (depressing) life story; Harvey’s prickly behavior toward Paterniti; and, above all, America — the America whose startling bigness and strangeness and multiplicity are familiar to anybody who has ever driven across the country.

The formula won Paterniti a National Magazine Award for feature writing when the article from which the book has been expanded appeared in Harper’s in 1997. So why did I feel increasingly irked as I read?

The first of many reasons is the manufactured nature of the project. At the beginning Paterniti is knocking around disconsolately as his girlfriend, another writer, plugs away industriously on a book; as soon as he learns about Harvey, you can hear the wheels turning. The problem is less the process — how else does a writer find a subject? — than the project itself, which, unless you really believe that Einstein’s pickled brain is exceptionally important either scientifically or culturally (and Paterniti can’t seem to talk himself into either notion), is, to put it politely, piffle, though it does offer the potential to be entertainingly bizarre, in a stoned kind of way.

So there is a lot of stoned humor and stoned reflection, as, for example, when the author contemplates the idea of the physicist’s resurrection:

What would it feel like to be born with an FBI file already open on you? Or to know you had once revolutionized the world with your work, but then never found true love? Might you try to trade one for the other? Or would you just sit around smoking pot all day, rebelling against yourself?

It doesn’t sound like Einstein is the one who has been toking.

Take Truman, Hitler, Hirohito, and Churchill, combine their heights, and you have an NBA player. And yet they destroyed much of Europe and Japan, and left millions dead.


Twenty miles down the road, the snow suddenly slows to mere ticks, and a white light begins to fill space in the sky, prying open the clouds. As it will happen in this single day, we will live through four seasons. Which can occur if one drives long enough with Einstein’s brain in the trunk. Time bends, accelerates, and overlaps; it moves backward, vertically, then loops; simultaneity rules.

That’s very nicely written, for crap. Intermingled with this kind of malarkey is the author’s grating Eastern amazement that life exists beyond New Jersey — he writes about the middle of the country in a tone of sustained amazement, constantly jumping between you and the page to shout, “Isn’t that weird!” Then there’s the ongoing discussion (all but standard in road-trip books these days) of his problems with his girlfriend (now his wife), which has about the same effect as a stranger’s pouring out his embarrassing life story to you at an airport: Why is he telling me this? you wonder. How can I get him to stop?

Throughout “Driving Mr. Albert” (I guess the title is a play on “Driving Miss Daisy,” which has next to nothing in common with this book), Paterniti’s instinctive skepticism remains at cross-purposes with his hucksterism. He enjoys portraying Einstein as a lovable old sausage-eating codger, and the biographical sections make it clear that he is genuinely taken with the physicist. But demystification is not what this endeavor is about. On the contrary, Paterniti has to pump the brain up into a magical object to justify writing a book about it, and that takes constant effort. Toward the end of the trip, after a long struggle, he manages to wrest the organ from the ornery old Harvey and hold it in his own grasp:

I am for a brief moment the man with the plan, the keeper of the cosmos. Do I feel the thing that relics, totems, and fetishes are supposed to make people feel? Something that I can believe in? A power larger than myself that I can submit to? Salvation? Have I touched eternity?

I can answer each of those questions for him with the same two-letter word.

Craig Seligman is the author of "Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me," and an editor at Absolute New York.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>