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A Real Head Trip

Yes, you can find Einstein in Princeton. But you really have to use your noggin.

By Jeff Schlegel
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 29, 2003; Page C02

Albert Einstein remains a pop icon nearly a half-century after his death. That's amazing, considering that he was a physicist and that although most people have heard of his theory of relativity and E=mc{+2}, few have the vaguest idea what they mean. But such is Einstein's legacy that his disheveled figure is as familiar as a movie star's and that he's the object of all the schlock tributes of celebrity, from bobblehead dolls to E=mc{+2} posters. Can you name another theoretician with his own Halloween mask?

And if Einstein remains a cult idol, surely Princeton is his shrine. After all, the leafy New Jersey college town was the Nobel laureate's adopted home town, where he lived and worked for 22 years and died in 1955. Indeed, his brain -- Albert Einstein's actual brain -- still resides there.

Call me Al: A cardboard cutout of the physicist, above, is part of a small Albert Einstein display in a woolens shop, one of Princeton's few tributes to its resident genius. (Photos Tim Larsen -- AP Special For The Washington Post)

The contact information for the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce in New Jersey was incorrect in the Oct. 29 Escapes column. The correct telephone number is 609-520-1776, and the Web site is www.princetonchamber.org.

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"Probably the number one question we get is, 'Where's Einstein?' " says Gail Stern, director of the Historical Society of Princeton.

So how come he's so hard to find? No statue, no memorial, no Brain-in-a-Jar on a pedestal in the town square. As I learned, to find Einstein in Princeton you practically have to be, well, a genius.

The first stop was the easiest. Einstein's address was 112 Mercer St., and I quickly found the modest, two-story frame house. As with most of the neighboring homes, a hedgerow borders the front yard. Unlike its neighbors, the house sports a small wrought-iron gate at the head of the front walk with a little message on it: "Private Residence."

That's a subtle "Keep Out" to overzealous Einstein fans who've been known to climb up on the front porch to have their pictures taken without asking permission. No other sign or marker hints at the house's history. It's a nice place, but I didn't detect any special brain waves coming out of it.

So it was on to University Medical Center at Princeton, formerly Princeton Hospital, where I asked the two people at the information desk if I might see Einstein's brain, please. I had it on good authority that the smartest organ of the 20th century was kept at the medical center. Was the brain in? I asked. Was it receiving visitors? They didn't have a clue. Neither did other staff members they asked.

It turned out that Einstein's brain is there. But you can't see it. When the great one died, that mighty brain was removed at the hospital before he was cremated. The pathologist who took it sliced it up, kept it in jars and carried it with him as he moved about the country. He gave some pieces to researchers at various institutions and eventually entrusted the remaining brain to the medical center's current pathologist. A public relations woman told me the doctor is keeping it there in safe storage for further scientific study.

At a kiosk on Palmer Square, I picked up a town map and finally found something official: a small blurb titled "Looking for Einstein." Beneath it was an ad for an Einstein mini-museum in, of all places, a small woolen-goods store called Landau's on Nassau Street, across from the university. I found the shop and walked past mohair blankets from Scotland, loden hats from Ireland and Princeton University T-shirts. Sure enough, tucked into the back left-hand corner is Princeton's grandest monument to one of its most famous residents.

What's here is a life-size cutout of the man himself. On the wall are roughly 70 photos, news articles and copies of rare letters and other personal papers. One is a sheet with algebraic equations accompanied by doodlings of a female friend. There's also a tiny collection of personal items, including a deck of playing cards and a seat cushion from his sailboat. There used to be other knickknacks, such as a pipe, a compass and a hand-held game with rolling steel balls that had something to do with figuring out gravity. These are on loan to the American Museum of Natural History in New York as part of a traveling Einstein exhibit.

According to brothers Robert and Henry Landau, who own the shop, this is the only permanent display of Einstein memorabilia in the United States. He left most of his papers to Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

"It's in an inappropriate place, I'll be the first to tell you," says Henry. "But it's here because no one else wanted it."

The collection grew out of a display of Einstein's stuff the Landaus put together to coincide with the local filming of "I.Q.," a 1994 movie in which Einstein (Walter Matthau) played cupid for his niece (Meg Ryan) and a local mechanic (Tim Robbins).

The articles are on loan from local residents. Neither the historical society nor the town library had room for the material, so the woolen shop became the country's repository for Time magazine's Person of the Century.

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