Algebra and a list of mystifying things I remember

Rachel mug.

You've probably already noted this on your calendar, but just in case you haven't, tomorrow is the 522nd anniversary of Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama reaching the Cape of Good Hope.

I bring this up because I don't actually remember anything about Vasco da Gama. However, if we're talking Portuguese sailors, I do remember that Ferdinand Magellan's crewmembers were so starved by the time they reached the South Pacific that they ate their shoes.

This is not an especially practical thing to know. I mean, I'm not going to pretend I haven't spent several productive minutes considering which of my shoes I could eat (conclusion: foam flip-flops in bites I can swallow whole), but it probably would be more useful to remember, say, that Magellan named the Pacific Ocean. This seems like a bigger deal.

But no, it's the shoe eating I remember, and I often worry that I wasted my entire education. This isn't so much a "When am I ever going to use algebra in real life???" situation – though in fact I have used algebra, when I was … tutoring algebra – but more of a "Why do I even remember that???" situation.

"A far-from-comprehensive list of the mystifyingly random things I inexplicably remember...":

■ The binomial name for field pumpkin is Cucurbita pepo.

■ Emily Dickinson, in later life, often would talk to people from behind a partially open door.

■ Mortality rates in high-density rodent populations susceptible to plague (I remember that binomial name, too: Yersinia pestis) can reach 100 percent.

■ In his youth, Malcolm X relaxed his hair via a process called "conking," which involved potatoes and lye.

■ If you want to say "we eat the mushrooms" in Italian, it's "mangiamo i funghi."

■ Johannes Gutenberg trained as a gem cutter before inventing the printing press.

■ Spelt was first cultivated around 5,000 BC.

■ Jupiter's Galilean moons are Europa, Ganymede, Io and Callisto. Io has a bunch of volcanos.

■ I also can recite the last nine lines of "Thanatopsis" by William Cullen Bryant, which I memorized in 11th grade American Literature at Palisade High School.

I have not found any of these things to be especially helpful, especially considering my so-far unsuccessful attempts to compete on "Jeopardy!" I can't remember needing any of this for crossword puzzles, either.

No, the thing that's really a bummer is it feels as though these interesting brain nuggets – I'm not denying they're interesting – might represent the sum of what I know. And they show up at the weirdest times! I once walked into a job interview and "Europa, Ganymede, Io and Callisto" popped into my head as I was meeting the person leading the interview.



Drifting off to sleep after a tiring week? Malcolm X conked his hair.

Screaming down on deadline with a work project? Mangiamo i funghi.

Navigating rush hour traffic? Spelt is one of our oldest cultivated grains.

I'm at a loss to explain any of this. I swear I learned in school how to, I don't know, do journalism or whatever other stuff I've ended up doing, but heck if I remember those particular lessons. What I do remember is that Lake Urmia is a salt lake in Iran and Millard Fillmore was a Whig.


Obviously there's been a huge amount of research about this. In "Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life," researchers Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang note, "The brain… discards most of the information in the world as soon as it is deemed to be unremarkable."

Also: "Your brain selectively processes details in the world that have historically been most relevant to survival – paying particular attention to events that are unexpected… Your brain rarely tells you the truth, but most of the time it tells you what you need to know anyway."

Apparently I need to know Johannes Gutenberg was a gem cutter?

Ultimately, I guess what I rue is slaving over research papers, agonizing over tests, trying my hardest to make, say, statistics go into my brain when I know for a fact it's not there now. And there have been times when I would have benefited from a ready recall of statistics!

But no. Instead, I can tell you that the capital of Burkina Faso is Ouagadougou and that among its main exports are Brazil nuts and cashews.

What I cannot tell you is the exact location of my car keys right now (Europa, Ganymede, Io and Callisto).

Recommended for you