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Getting Inside the 'Brain'

A Caltech project attempts to archive all the writings associated with Albert Einstein--from his theories as a scientist to his love letters as a young suitor.

March 21, 2001|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

This has to be a mistake. There, on the Borders shelf, packed with weighty physics volumes, lies a slick little book titled "Driving Mr. Albert." Its cover shows the rear end of a Buick with the license plate "E=MC2." Its plot is bizarre: Young man drives cross-country with old doctor who stole Einstein's brain 45 years ago and never gave it back. They roll westward with the sliced-and-diced brain in a Tupperware bowl in a gray duffel bag in the Buick's trunk. The doc shows it off every now and then to strangers he meets in coffee shops. This is fiction, accidentally placed on the wrong shelf, you might think. Wrong. It's fact.

Journalist Michael Paterniti drove the car and wrote the book, published by Dial nine months ago. The doctor is Thomas Harvey, 84, who performed the Einstein autopsy in 1955, and walked away with the world's smartest brain.

Happy birthday, Albert Einstein.

The planet's greatest scientist--the man who figured out the nature of the universe--was born March 14, 1879. No big bashes have been slated to honor the mental maestro--a situation that would suit him just fine. He never celebrated his own, or even those of the ones he loved. He couldn't remember them.

Even at age 22, in lust with the woman he would marry, he missed his mark: "My dear little sweetheart," he wrote to Mileva Maric, "my belated cordial congratulations on your birthday yesterday, which I have forgotten once again . . ."

Years later in 1954, to his son Hans Albert, he wrote: "I have to admit I didn't think about your birthday, but your wife reminded me . . ."

These little tidbits come courtesy of the extraordinary undertaking that has arrived at Caltech in Pasadena, which is a place Einstein respected and enjoyed.

Called the Einstein Papers Project, it is an archive of almost everything the scientist ever received or wrote. Equations, notations, physics theories, learned dialogues, love letters, postcards, every rhyme and scribble Einstein made--and his assistants saved. An example:

Oh my! That Johnnie boy!

So crazy with desire

While thinking of his Dollie

His pillow catches fire.

Einstein sent the poem to Maric in 1900. She married him anyway.

*

The Einstein Papers Project is probably the most important, comprehensive--and juiciest--publishing venture ever undertaken in the history of science. It is also the most complex. So far, it represents a 20-year effort to research, cross-reference, catalog and publish, in the original German and in English, Einstein's entire written remains.

From the books he liked as a child, to his writings on religion, physics and philosophy, and new information on his love affairs, researchers are compiling an unprecedented analysis of the great man's intellectual and spiritual growth.

Einstein did nothing less than turn space, time, energy and matter on their heads--showing that what the world once thought were separate phenomena are really different aspects of the same thing.

The Einstein Papers Project, which began in Boston in the early 1980s, moved West when Diana Barkan, 44, was named its director and editor in chief last year. Barkan, who was trained as a chemist in Israel and received a doctorate in the history of science at Harvard, has taught history of science at Caltech since 1989. With seven of the planned 29 volumes already published by Princeton University Press under previous editors, Barkan will be in charge of the volumes to come.

Seven oversize black file cabinets containing more than 40,000 documents in Einstein's possession when he died, and an additional 15,000 discovered by editors since the project began (they still track down new material every year) are now parked in the basement of an old red brick former faculty residence, where Barkan and her group work.

"There has never been a work of comparable structure and detail," Barkan says. "We are publishing everything Einstein wrote or received, chronologically, day by day," cross-referencing it to everything going on in his life, and to what was relevant in the world at large.

"For example, his correspondence with mathematicians on the theory of relativity is cross-referenced with all the drafts of papers he wrote, with all the papers he published on the subject, and with all the the popular articles of the day," she says. Added to the mix is anything to do with Einstein's leisure reading and hobbies, personal relationships, and his involvements in political and ethical issues at the time.

The first volume begins with his birth in Ulm, Germany, on March 14, 1879, and goes through 1902, when he started his first full-time job in the Swiss patent office. The second covers 1905--what scientists call "the miracle year"--during which Einstein, at 26, did his most important work. It includes his papers on the generation and conversion of light, Brownian motion, and his theory of relativity.

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