^z 25th April 2023 at 8:04am

Every so often some piece of utter trivia squirrelled away in the old cerebrum comes in handy ... at least, handy in the sense of amazing my colleagues and enhancing my reputation as a mother lode of bizarre factoids. In a few cases the worthless information bubbles up at an opportune moment when a semi-bigwig (e.g., my boss's boss's boss) poses a question to a crowded room. Two disparate instances:

  • SG asked, at an offsite gathering ca. 1997, "Does anybody know what's different in the base pairs for DNA versus RNA?" Nobody else spoke up, so I ventured to reply, "Uh, I think there's uracil instead of thymine." SG laughed; she somehow must have intuited that if anybody there would know, I would — and she knew me well enough to be sure that I would be unable to resist the bait and keep quiet. She was right in that second judgment.
  • JL, in a morning staff meeting ca. 1999, mentioned that at dinner the prior evening he had heard the aphorism, "From the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever built," and wondered about its source. "Uh, I think it's Tolstoy; maybe it was used in an Isaiah Berlin essay," I offered. (Wrong! — the quote was from Kant.) Another mental packrat in the room (TF) mentioned Berlin's "The Fox and the Hedgehog" and we crossed swords over that for a few moments, much to the amusement of the spectators.

Why remember such things? I don't mean the pair of anecdotes in the bullets above; they're of no real significance to anybody but me and maybe my Mother (Hi Mom!). But rather, why bother to store and retrieve isolated bits of information?

The answer is that no information is an island, separate from the main. Things link up — and progress comes from spotting hitherto unseen connections between facts: threads that can be used to pull strings, then ropes, then cables across the gaps, until a solid bridge is built. Sparks from rubbing cats and amber don't seem to have much to do with lodestones and compass needles; nor does falling fruit seem related to the movements of lights (planets) in the night sky; nor does a new translation of Homer ordinarily bring to mind the first view of the Pacific by a European explorer. But ...

(see also NamingNames (10 Oct 1999), WebsOfEvidence (15 Feb 2000), ThreadsOfHistory (6 Jun 2001), AlteredNative (24 Jan 2002), ...)

TopicScience - TopicThinking - TopicPersonalHistory - 2002-04-23

(correlates: FireFighting, GoodFailure, ObliviousAce, ...)