Sunday, October 14, 2007

Driving Mr. Albert

A Trip Across America With Einstein's Brain
Michael Paterniti
The Dial Press
ISBN: 0-385-3300-5

If there is a greater waste of time than taking Einstein's brain, in two Tupperware containers, on a cross country road trip, it could only be removing that brain during an autopsy in order to discover the source of Einstein's genius. Thomas Harvey, defrocked pathologist, did both of these things. He dedicated his life to them, in fact. Paterniti became his enabler, by going to interview Harvey and offering to drive the 85 year old retiree from his home in Princeton New Jersey to San Jose California in order to show the brain to Einstein's granddaughter, who really didn't want to see it.

It did provide Paterniti with a hook that he could hang a book proposal on, get him published and keep him from a lifetime of housepainting. It is a very readable book, a memoir of an uncomfortable cross country trip with an elderly stranger and has some funny incidents in which Paterniti confesses to strangers that they are transporting Einstein's brain in the trunk of their car. Harvey did fly back to New Jersey, presumable with the brain in his carry-on luggage, so there never was a need to actually drive the whole way, except to write a book about it.

Harvey's lifetime of research, with the help of various scientists with whom he has shared parts of the brain, is inconclusive. Einstein may have had more glial cells than average. The part of the brain associated with math, I didn't know there was such an organ, may have been somewhat larger that usual. Not much for 50 years of study. There is speculation in the book about cloning the brain. After half a century in formaldehyde there's no chance of that. That fact is kind of glossed over for the science fiction effect.


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