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Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Perils of Memory


The author has found that the secret of having a well-stocked memory is to read and experience widely but, preferably, not to take notice of anything unimportant or, if that is unavoidable, to forget the unimportant as quickly and completely as possible.

This method is effective, but poses a substantial risk. For when and where one has read or seen a thing is surely unimportant and to be forgotten. But later, a vaguely remembered idea or concept may arise in one’s thoughts in a manner subjectively indistinguishable from discovering it oneself.

This has, on more than one occasion, led the author to embarrassment.

For the author may wish to share such a marvellous idea one just discovered—in fact, merely imperfectly remembered—with one’s peers. So one may remark along the lines of The other day I was contemplating the structure of the symmetric groups and did you know that it implies that the general quintic does not have a closed-form root? or There should be a coffee table book on coffee tables. And then such a coffee table book would unfold into the shape of a coffee table!

As one shares this brilliant discovery, eventually someone will pull one aside—hopefully before the audiences have grown too large—and remark that this thought was previously expressed in a place the author surely must have encountered, such as Abel/Galois or Seinfeld’s Kramer.

Much embarassment ensues. And so one speaks and writes in perpetual terror of unintentional plagiarism. If, as it probably has been, this sin was committed in these pages, the author begs the reader’s forgiveness.