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What are you reading, Ms Cipińska?

Marta Cipińska coordinates a PhD exchange program between New York University (NYU) and MDC-BIMSB that trains the next generation of systems biologists. No longer a scientist, she has replaced PubMed with browsing the shelves of her local bookstore – and found “Moonwalking with Einstein.”

“Reading allows me to enter imaginary worlds where anything is possible. I like books about success stories of both fictional and real characters. It could be a mystery solved by Detective Poirot in one of Agatha Christie’s novels or the invention of radio in the biography of Nikola Tesla.

Since I am no longer an active researcher, I have replaced PubMed with searching the science and travel sections of my local bookstore. I usually look for biographies of great minds, histories of scientific breakthroughs, and adventures of people exploring the world.

"Moonwalking with Einstein" by Joshua Foer caught my eye with its intriguing title and a funny cover that features a dinosaur's tail and a sumo wrestler (no moon, nor Einstein!). I usually don’t read the back-cover blurbs to avoid spoilers. The subtitle "The art and science of remembering everything" was promising enough for me. I have always been interested in the concepts of how we can acquire more knowledge and how we can do it faster. I expected not only helpful mnemonic techniques, but also scientific evidence on why they work. Obviously, it was so much more than that!

It all starts with a reporting assignment

The story begins with the author covering the 2005 USA Memory Championships as a journalist. He was curious about the concept of the “smartest person in the world” – how can we determine who that is? Is it even possible to measure smartness? Meeting “mental athletes” seemed like the perfect opportunity to understand what it means to be smart. One year later, he comes back to the same competition, but in a completely different role…

Foer presents personal stories of people who train their minds to remember large amounts of information in short periods of time – from ancient scholars to today’s memory champions. He also introduces people who, due to medical conditions, cannot forget anything that has ever happened to them, or who have completely lost the ability to remember their own name, age or address. Most importantly, he shares his experience with experimenting with his own mental capabilities. The story also touches on philosophical questions like "Who are we without our memories?"

The book was published in 2011, but the topic remains relevant, especially now with the explosion of artificial intelligence technologies. As fascinating as they are, we shouldn’t forget that many mechanisms of human intelligence remain a mystery.”

Joshua Foer is a journalist and science writer from the United States. "Moonwalking with Einstein" was his first book. It became an international bestseller and has been translated into 34 languages.

Joshua Foer: “Moonwalking with Einstein.” Penguin / Random House, 2011.