by Chet Raymo
“There is no mystery in science more baffling than memory– the way a melon-sized ball of meat can store a lifetime of recollections and recall them at will without erasing. To think about it is almost to doubt the materialist paradigm. Almost, but not quite. We have computers to remind us that it is in principle possible. This little box I am writing on contains every Science Musing post of the past eight years and the images that went with them.
Still, I stand in awe of someone like Gabriel García Márquez, who seems to have remembered every detail of his past, or, sublimely, that master of memory, Vladimir Nabokov. Here is Nabokov on the French governess who was imported into Russia by his family to care for the Nabokov children: "A large woman, a very stout woman, Mademoiselle rolled into our existence in 1905 when I was six and my brother was five. There she is. I see so plainly her abundant dark hair, brushed up high and covertly graying; the three wrinkles on her austere forehead; her beetling brows; the steely eyes behind the black-rimmed pince-nez; that vestigial mustache; that blotchy complexion, which in moments of wrath develops an additional flush in the region of the third, and amplest, chin so regally spread over the frilled mountain of her blouse. And now she sits down, or rather she tackles the job of sitting down, the jelly of her jowl quaking, her prodigious posterior, with the three buttons on the side, lowering herself warily; then, at the last second, she surrenders her bulk to the wicker armchair, which out of sheer fright bursts into a salvo of crackling."
Could he really remember, decades latter, such detail from age six? That triad of threes: wrinkles, chins, buttons? At age six, or thereabouts, my family employed a domestic helper one day a week to assist with the ironing. I remember her race (naturally) and her name, which was unusual, but virtually nothing else about her- was she youngish and thin?– even though I spent many days in her presence. I do remember, however, in vivid detail, the ironing board, the iron, and the water-filled Coke bottle with the metal sprinkler corked to the top with which she dampened the clothes before pressing.
Right-brained, left-brained? Were the details that my six-year-old brain squirreled away for the future related to a mechanical aptitude that would later nudge my visits to the science lab storeroom, and then to the study of engineering and physics. If a sum of memories is a person's soul, am I the tin man on the Yellow Brick Road? And now we know too why García Márquez, Proust and Nabokov are elevated to the loftiest heights of literature. Three wrinkles, three chins, three buttons.”