Here's a strange message my brain sent me last evening: "Iodine gum and oranges. Compare and contrast."
The brain does not always walk a straight line. It swerves, spins and leaps, bringing us crazy dreams, brilliant inventions, irrational conclusions, love, comedy, tragedy, art and, for the willing traveler, improbable mental journeys. And so, after spending the day almost entirely focused on editing a long story for Sports Illustrated, I found myself, at bedtime, venturing out onto a thin strand of logic. My three pounds of gray matter had connected four seemingly unrelated things—a snowstorm, the spotlights on our garage, a discussion of scurvy and a book about chemical elements—into thoughts that, in the biggest surprise of all, actually ended up making sense. Here's how the deal went down:
Step one: Two days ago, while flipping through Theodore Gray's wonderful book on all the elements that make up the universe, I happen upon number 53, iodine. I think back many years to my mother putting a deep reddish, stinging iodine tincture on my cuts. (The tincture's alcohol caused the sting, author Gray tells me.) The book shows a photo of an old-looking pack labeled Iodigum. I read about how—in the days before iodine became a common ingredient in table salt—people used to chew it to avoid iodine depletion, which leads to a nasty thyroid condition called goiter.
Step two: At 6 a.m. yesterday Pamelia is reading aloud to me from a Bill Bryson book. He's describing how scurvy killed thousands of seamen in the age of the explorers, back before humans discovered that the disease results from a lack of vitamin C. We discuss vitamin C and wonder what the symptoms of scurvy are. I look them up. They're bad.
Step three: I eat an orange for lunch.
Step four: My mom sends me an e-mail about all the snow that's just fallen at their house in Connecticut. I think about the house and how in winter we always had crates of oranges and grapefruit in the basement. As I look out at the snowstorm battering the coast of Maine, I realize that I associate oranges with cold, snowy weather and short days.
Step five: It's 9 p.m. and I take Wooster, our dog, out for her walk. The spotlights turn the snow-covered trees into a black-and-white spectacle. I take pictures. The contrasts—between dark and light, between this scene and the almost photo-negative version from snow-free nights—are stark. I start thinking about how thought-provoking contrast is, in art or travel or nature, or any kind of experience, really; how it jolts our senses and rattles our assumptions and heightens our appreciation. That old school-test phrase comes into my head: compare and contrast. You can apply it to anything.
Step six: Perhaps this explains why ours brains have been shrinking for the last 20,000 years and are now significantly smaller than those of Neanderthals. Instead of having to figure out a way to escape death by saber-toothed tiger, I have the luxury of letting thoughts flood in. It's bedtime and Pamelia is again reading about exploration and the global spread of diseases. Suddenly the illness-and-cure parallels between scurvy/oranges and goiter/iodine gum seem obvious to me. I don't know why, but I find that mental connection satisfying. The fact that iodine is also a so-called contrast agent, given to patients before CT scans to make differences in the scans stand out, seems an odd coincidence.
I'm still intrigued by the existence of iodine gum.
In case you were wondering...
Iodine is a Greek word meaning purple or violet, but Chile is the world's leading iodine producer; it extracts the element from a rock called caliche. For those of you who choose to memorize elements in the periodic table by matching their atomic number to a famous athlete who wore that same number, well, iodine, with 53 protons in its nucleus, would be either the Don Drysdale of elements (if you like baseball) or the Harry Carson of elements (if you like football).
Nobel Prize-winning German physicist Wilhelm Wien, who in the 1890s figured out how to measure the surface temperature of stars through clues from their spectra, would have been 147 years old. Methodology developed by Wien eventually led to the creation of mass spectography, an essential tool in measuring the masses of atoms.