consider myself a bright person. I think I reason well. I think I generally understand what good proof requires. I retain a lot of knowledge from the trivial (Norway became independent in 1906; the horse was named Bucephalus; Henry Aaron had a home run taken away because the umpire ruled that his foot was outside the batter’s box) to the more important (a general understanding of Bayes’ Theorem; Article I defines the powers of Congress) to the crucial (my spouse’s birthday).
But no matter how hard I try, I can’t retain information about some topics. I know little about botany even though I have taken many hikes with terrific naturalists who show me how to identify plants. Sure I can recognize a maple leaf, but that is not because of the guides. I credit “Oh Canada”. (I credit Canada for many things: Bobby Hull, Robertson Davies and Margaret Atwood, great comedians and actors, and a plethora of professional wrestlers—I’m looking at you, Bret “The Hitman” Hart and Stampede Wrestling.) But I can’t tell a rhododendron from a mountain laurel, a coleus from a coelacanth.
Recently I visited a number of western National Parks and heard much about the geology of Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and other parks on the Colorado Plateau. I learn something, but that knowledge quickly disappears. I don’t think it is simply because I have heard the philosopher of science Sheldon Cooper’s assertion that geology is the Kardashian of science.
I do actually have some basic understanding of plate tectonics and continental drift. Years ago I read a marvelous essay by Stephen Jay Gould on the subject. (I am being redundant; I have found all Gould essays to be marvelous.) I have absorbed that plate tectonics is one of the most important Kuhnian paradigm-shifting theories of the Twentieth Century, but while I retain the names of other paradigm shifters, Darwin, Newton, Einstein, I have not retained the name of the geology game changer. I recently read Patti Smith’s description of the Continental Drift Club, and its homage to Alfred Wegener. And I say, “Who?” It finally dawns on me that he is the person Stephen Jay had written about, but I had forgotten. I could remember the origins of the West Coast Offense (a real, not metaphoric, game changer making too many football games alike tedious), but not the person who, in an important sense, remade the understanding of our present world.
When it comes to knowledge going beyond the concept of plate tectonics, however, I am sure that it will disappear. On the trip just completed, Kirt, the geologist (also musician and photographer), gave wonderful lectures. I learned about the Cretaceous Sea, Navajo Sandstone, Kaibab Limestone, and how different erosion rates have led to what geologists call the Grand Staircase. But I know that I have not truly absorbed this information. A year or two from now if I am asked to describe this geology, I will say something about the Keokuk Limestone that compressed the Beelzebub Basalt with Balthazar Bedrock at the lowest level thereby forming the Grand Ballroom.