Without memory, is science — or a country— dead?

What if we forget Ohm's Law? Ohm's law states that the electric current through a conductor between two points is directly proportional to the voltage divided by the resistance between those two points; I=V/R.

I suspect that, if we forget this, all our efforts at sustainable energy would end. Or what if we forget Kepler's Laws of planetary motion? So much for the Mars mission.

Luckily, no one seems to have forgotten how to use anesthesia even though it's been over 150 years since we discovered it. What if someone forgets about the benefit of vaccines and starts a campaign to discredit them? Oh, wait. Someone has already done that. It's been over 200 years since we discovered the possibilities of vaccination, so that's understandable.

Of course, very few people remember what Ohm's Law is, even if they once knew. In our modern world, we designate specialists to remember important things like Kepler's Laws of planetary motion. They're called scientists and engineers.

But even scientists can't remember all the laws. Few biologists remember Ohm's Law. So, we have specialists to remember the important ones. It's like the novel "Fahrenheit 451," in which certain people are designated to memorize various books, so they aren't forgotten as the books are burned.

I was talking to a young girl going into nursing not long ago and discovered that she didn't know who Florence Nightingale was. Florence Nightingale was not only the "Lady of the Lamp." She was highly educated in mathematics, which was very unusual for her day. She was also a tireless campaigner for medical reform. Florence popularized the use of pie charts to communicate complicated ideas.

And, of course, few now remember John Snow, the "father of modern epidemiology," for his efforts in determining how cholera was spread by using statistical mapping methods that he invented. John and Florence were contemporaries, and they did their work long before humanity even knew about bacteria.

Looks like some folks have forgotten the germ theory of disease, though it's only about 150 years old. If we remembered that, we could pretty much predict outbreaks of typhus or plague under some of the conditions in San Francisco right now.

Personally, I have now remembered 53 wedding anniversaries in a row! I probably won't make 150. That's probably not as important as Ohm's Law, but it is a testament to my wife's long suffering.

Did you know that scientists don't really know what memory is? In fact, it's one of those abstract things that we have named but can't really "get ahold of." We all think it's there, but we're not sure where or how. We think the brain is involved, but we don't really know what's going on. Some folks think we don't have free will, but everyone thinks they remember.

I once read an interview with a person who couldn't remember his wife, children, parents, or anything past a certain date. His opinion was that, when memory dies, people might as well say the person is dead.

I was reading a family history that my uncle compiled and discovered that I had ancestors on my mother's side who were part of the Underground Railroad prior to the Civil War. They helped runaway slaves escape. I grew up during the 1960s, but my mom never told me about any of that. Considering the turmoil going on at the time concerning segregation, you'd think she would have. She must have forgotten.

And it looks like some folks have forgotten that hundreds of thousands of Americans fought and died to end slavery and have since opposed segregation. A lot of our politicians seem to have forgotten how governments can become tyrannical. And even that we are such an admired country, people are dying to come here. If we forget scientific principles, science is dead. Without a memory, is a country is dead?

Gary McCallister, gmccallister@bresnan.net, is a professor emeritus of biological sciences at Colorado Mesa University.

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