Banana slugs and wind-up teeth

Memory has reasons that reason knows not (although sometimes reason can figure them out after the fact). Years ago I tried to recall the name of a place in my hometown that I remembered fondly for its cheese steak sandwiches. My mind suggested “Sweetwater?” The Yellow Pages answered, “Bitter Creek.”

Last night, as I made my shopping list for stocking-stuffers for my family, in particular for my two young grandchildren, I had a vague recollection of a company that sold silly gifts for science geeks. I knew of this place because twenty-some years ago, a friend bought her daughter (who was studying neuroscience) a gelatin brain mold and her son a large plastic banana slug from their catalog. (People gave her son slugs the way people give me bears; I don’t know why.) At any rate, I thought the company might have something nice for little kids too, but I couldn’t remember its name.

I googled “jello brain mold,” but that was no help because apparently you can buy them at Walmart these days. So I set my mind to try to remember. As I went about my evening, eventually the name Wilbur floated into consciousness. Wasn’t there someplace called Wilbur something? Wilbur Bell? No, it was Willmann-Bell! A flash of optimism: was this the company? But no, as my memory dredged up further details, I recalled that this place sold astronomy books. (It still does; I found the web site and felt an unaccountable but very strong longing for a CD containing the contents of the U.S. Naval Observatory’s annual almanac for 1800 to 2050. Best forget about Willmann-Bell again.)

I resigned myself to never recovering the name of the company, and I went to sleep. My loyal, nonlinear brain was apparently still working on the problem, though, because this morning as I brushed my teeth, I thought, “Was it Archie something?” A host of Archies and Archibalds swam quickly to the surface of my mind: Archie Miller, Archibald Cox, Archibald MacLeish. (I thought of Archibald Wheeler, although I couldn’t say offhand who he was; it turns out Archibald is the middle name of physicist John Wheeler, a fact that I didn’t remember knowing.) Shooing these Archies aside, my mind went on to ask, “Was it Archie McPhee?”

And indeed it was. The company is alive and well online. It’s actually not so much science-oriented as silliness-oriented; it’s the home of the wind-up lederhosen, the yodeling pickle, and the world’s largest underpants. However, it sells the classic gag gift of wind-up teeth, which chatter like a set of animate dentures. I’m pretty sure I gave my sons a set of wind-up teeth that had feet, many years ago. I’m buying one now, sans feet, for each of my grandchildren. I hope their parents forgive me.

Book review: Thinking in Systems

The book Thinking in Systems: A Primer, by Donella Meadows, seems like the missing manual for how to live well in the context of complex systems—in other words, how to live well. I reviewed the book on the Thinking Meat Project. I highly recommend this book if you want a better understanding of the systems you live with, from your body on up to your ecosystem and your government.

Consilience Conference

A few weeks ago, I attended the Consilience Conference in St. Louis. Consilience is a term coined by biologist Edward O. Wilson to describe a unification of knowledge in which the findings of science (and specifically evolutionary biology) inform the work of the social sciences and humanities. The conference was exciting and educational; in three short days, we heard 20 speakers on a wide range of topics. I’m still processing all the new information and writing about the talks and various related matters. Follow my reports at the Thinking Meat Project as I write about what I learned at the conference.

Book review: Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine

I recently reviewed Cordelia Fine’s excellent book, Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference at the Thinking Meat Project. The book dissects some of the pop psychology takes on gender differences in cognition and offers a useful and enlightening corrective, as well as an engaging review of what we know so far about how gender influences our behavior. In Fine’s own words, “to those interested in gender equality there is nothing at all frightening about good science. It is only carelessly done science, or poorly interpreted science, or the neurosexism it feeds, that creates cause for concern.”