Einstein Rides Shotgun

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In April 1955 pathologist Thomas Harvey performed an autopsy at Princeton (N.J.) Hospital on the cadaver of Albert Einstein. After determining that Einstein died of a burst aneurysm in the abdominal aorta, Dr. Harvey veered just a bit from protocol by making a circular incision in the great man's head, removing the 1.22-kg brain and dissecting it into 240 pieces before taking the 20th century's most important gray matter home in a glass jar filled with formaldehyde.

It sounds like the stuff of B movies, but when Michael Paterniti tracks Harvey down in New Jersey nearly a half-century later in Driving Mr. Albert (Little, Brown; 211 pages), it turns out to be closer to tragedy. For years the doctor has claimed to be conducting independent research on the purloined remains, but he has produced no findings, and reputable scientists dismiss him as a jerk. A parade of wives and children have abandoned him, and he hasn't practiced medicine in decades-all because of his zealous dedication to the chunks of brain. Now, at 84, Harvey is the kind of wonderfully flawed character writers pray for, and Paterniti's luck has only begun. Turns out the doctor wants to visit (and make peace with?) Einstein's daughter Evelyn in Berkeley, Calif. Faster than you can say movie rights, Paterniti, Harvey and Einstein's brain, now floating in a Tupperware container, are off to California in a rented Buick Skylark.

Then something funny happens. Actually, nothing happens. The two men relate the way perfect strangers sometimes do, by not talking. Paterniti probes here and there, but for the most part he's left to observe that Harvey is indeed quite a riddle. Driving Mr. Albert's provenance as a magazine article-albeit a National Magazine Award­winning one-becomes painfully clear when Paterniti resorts to rehashing a few well-known biographical details about Einstein, musing about the (yawn) magic of the road and relating the minutiae of his girlfriend trouble, all seemingly to stretch his tale to book length.

Driving Mr. Albert's best recurring joke is that Harvey changes the subject whenever the author asks to pop off the Tupperware lid so that he can see the floating brainy bits for himself. If only Paterniti had been as persistent about getting inside the head of his living passenger.