Sitting, contemplating a page of algebra that might have been hieroglyphs for all the meaning it conveyed, a thought occurred. It was a thought that was original to the extent that it was all my own work; it was a thought that was incisive and illuminating. So pleased was I that such a piece of logic was possible that I turned back to the algebra and immediately forgot whatever the insight had been. No amount of word association or retracing processes of thinking would allow it to be recovered. Undoubtedly, it was neither incisive nor original, and was evidently instantly forgettable.
It felt as though I were the schoolboy in the story of a science teacher who was trying to teach a group of fourth year boys. He stood at the front of the classroom explaining the subject when he noticed there was a boy at the back not paying attention. He stopped what he was saying and said to the boy, “what’s electricity?”
The boy realised he had been caught out. He looked around at the rest of the class, but no-one was going to give him an answer. “What’s electricity?”
What was he going to say?
He looked at the teacher and said, “Sir, I knew, but I’ve forgotten.”
The teacher looked at the rest of the class and said, “Do you hear that? The only person in the history of the whole world who ever knew what electricity was has forgotten.”
There was always a nagging sympathy for the boy, how often have there been moments when there were thoughts at the corner of the mind, words on the tip of the tongue, something almost understood? Perhaps not an explanation of electricity, but answers to other questions. Sometimes there seem things almost apprehended, glimpsed from the corner of the eye, that disappear before fully appearing. Perhaps the mark of genius is the capacity to fully discern the fullness of a picture whilst the rest of us lesser mortals can see no more than tiny fragments of the image.
Perhaps the problem for schoolboys generally has been not that there is a lack of a capacity to understand, as the lack of a capacity to concentrate. Were there a gifted physics teacher, a teacher of the quality of a Nobel laureate, who was suddenly gifted with being able to describe electricity, and decided to share this insight with the class, there would undoubtedly be boys sitting at the back of the classroom oblivious to the knowledge they were being offered.