The road trip has long been a staple of American literature, and why not? Our country’s vast geography allows for endless permutations on the themes of journey and discovery, with fresh material just waiting there, like a hitchhiker, for the right writer to come along.
Michael Paterniti was certainly the right one to travel cross-country with Albert Einstein’s brain. In this month’s Harper’s, he recounts his 10-day journey last February from Princeton to Berkeley with the Tupperware-encased chopped-up gray matter of our century’s greatest genius, along with the 84-year-old pathologist, Thomas Harvey, who removed it from Einstein’s skull. Actually, Harvey stole it.
Harvey performed the autopsy the morning after Einstein’s death, in 1955. He refused to surrender the brain, lost his job, and hid his prize, minus a few slices, for 42 years. When Paterniti finds him, the two hit it off and decide to drive west in search of Einstein’s granddaughter. Perhaps, Paterniti conjectures, Harvey is ready to make amends.
What follows is a hypnotic journey into America, into history, into the motivations of these two men on the move.