Fiendish puz­zles re­mind me that mem­ory works in mys­te­ri­ous ways

The Daily Telegraph - - Saturday Comment -

‘Mankind!” I mum­bled to my star­tled hus­band, be­fore go­ing back to sleep. I wasn’t sleep-talk­ing. In fact, it was a mo­ment of pure, un­al­loyed lu­cid­ity.

You see, I had gone to bed mulling a code­word puz­zle – like a cross­word in which each let­ter has been as­signed a num­ber. You are given three of the let­ters to start off and from that have to work out the whole al­pha­bet. I had gone to sleep un­able to think of a sin­gle word that could fit around the let­ters given. Then, in the mid­dle of the night, my un­con­scious brain found the an­swer.

This has hap­pened re­peat­edly since I bought a book of the puz­zles last week. I’ve wo­ken up blinded by rev­e­la­tions: not “mag­ne­sium”: “mag­netism”! It’s def­i­nitely “minim”! I haven’t thought about min­ims since I last took a pi­ano les­son, about two decades ago. Some­how, though, the word was in there, stored on the hard drive.

There is one part of re­mem­ber­ing that you choose. It’s the mo­ment when you don’t as­sume that you can’t re­mem­ber some­thing, cast your net wide, grope care­fully to­wards the cloud of facts that might con­tain a clue.

Then there is the other part that is in­vol­un­tary: the process that takes over once you’re busy or asleep. Its work­ings are mys­te­ri­ous, but its re­sults ap­pear with to­tal clar­ity, like a shiny but­ton dropped on your doorstep by a mag­pie. You wake up and there it is. It’s best not to ques­tion the gift, but pick it up and be glad.

 Sci­en­tists at MIT have pub­lished a pa­per ar­gu­ing that it will soon be pos­si­ble to shoot a laser beam of such power into space that it could at­tract at­ten­tion from aliens up to 20 light years away. With such a beam act­ing as a “plan­e­tary porch light”, we could send sig­nals that would in­di­cate our pres­ence to ex­trater­res­tri­als and per­haps per­suade them to visit.

I’m sure the tech­nol­ogy be­hind this is in­ge­nious but it is an ex­cep­tion­ally bad idea. If suc­cess­ful, the over­whelm­ingly likely re­sult would be our coloni­sa­tion by a more ad­vanced alien race. Please, can we just re­serve the gi­ant lasers for par­ti­cle ac­cel­er­a­tors and Bjork con­certs?

The serendip­ity of mem­ory is a great gift when you’re strug­gling to com­plete a brain teaser

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