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December 20, 2011

I recently saw an advertisement of an attraction where a robot picks fruit. Everyone looks at the robot, but the perfected plant, composed of uncountable nanorobots (biomolecules) so small you can not see them in the microscope, is more impressive to me than a silly toy.

A toy may have an artificial computer memory. Is there a plant memory? Many individuals of a single bamboo species may not bloom for decades and suddenly they all make blossom simultaneously, even if separated over great distances. How do they keep track of time? It is probably a predestined number of cell divisions, but how does that memory look like biochemically?  I frankly do not get it! In animals memory is hypothesized to be ‘persistent changes in molecular structures that alter synaptic transmissions in neurons’. Which biomolecule persist for a life-time? What does the mechanical memory in our brain look like? I do not get that either.

If we compare with early computer memories they were originally stored on paper (punched cards). A certain letter was a series of holes or not holes, transformed to series of electricity or not. The experimental memories in today’s computer laboratories are called ‘molecular memories’, and they are materials where each molecule stores electric charge or not, ‘nanocapacitors’. To understand memory mechanically we may have to go back to the first capacitor (=condenser) ever built in 1745 by the German Ewald Georg von Kleist. His eccentric aim was to store electricity from a generator in a bottle of water, and he succeeded! The glass bottle was an insulator (a dielectric), and the hand and the water the two conductors between which the electric field was created. He proved that he had stored the electricity by disconnecting the generator and then he touched the metal nail in the bottle: “I would not take a second shock for the Kingdom of France”.

A memory chip or microprocessor contains millions of microscopical capacitors made of  silicon and silicon dioxide (parts of an integrated circuit). Without eccentric people like von Kleist we would not have any computers and no clues to how human memory works.

A Chiang Mai gardener may need a good memory to keep track of scientific names, synonymous scientific names, English names and many Thai names. How can we enhance our memory? I strongly believe in using different senses to engage as many neurons as possible, so that a new plant is memorized by looking carefully at bark, roots, leaves, flowers (camera or dissecting microscope), and by touching, smelling and tasting,  and also by reading about the plant (origin, habitat, uses) and by learning something about the etymology of the scientific name.

Another way of improving/training your short-term memory is the game ‘Memory’. It is simple: out of a mix of cards with identical backsides turned up, you have to find a pair of identical cards by turning two cards at a time and then memorizing what card is where. Recently I have experienced how joyfully my son Mika, almost four years old, plays it. Originally he had difficulties in learning the rules and he was more interested in playing with the cards than playing the game. I had to pretend I could not remember myself to let him find pairs and then reward him for that, or simply show him where to find the corresponding card to make a pair.

Lately his memorizing capacity has become much better than mine. He may end up with 18 pairs, a decisive victory over my 11 pairs. If I hesitate a second he helps me to turn up the correct card, too excited to wait for my stiff and old brain. The game, which seems unavailable in Thailand, also teaches him rules, animals (this is animal memory), spelling and letters (these memory cards contain this information too). It is sometimes said that physical exercise may improve learning. To Mika, playing memory is physical exercise, since he jumps up and down and runs around the table in pure excitement. What he has not learnt yet, is that there are winners and losers. We practice counting by counting pairs after the game, but he salutes any successfully obtained pair regardless if it is he or me who gets it. To him, it is the united efforts of mankind against chaos. I shall keep him in this stage of innocent happiness for some more time, but eventually reveal the cruelty of human competition to him.

Eric Danell

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