In a paper that deftly bridges the divide between the humanities and the sciences—C. P. Snow’s much-vaunted two cultures—researchers from the MIT Media Lab document the underlying dynamics of collective attention and memory, traced as a bi-exponential curve (a steep drop followed by a slow decline over time).

The paper published on December 10 in Nature Human Behavior begins with a quotation from one of Pablo Neruda’s most famous poems, “Poema 20,” contrasting the vivid but often short-lived emotion of intense romantic love and its gradual fading from memory as the years pass: “Love is so short, forgetting is so long.” The dynamics of this process, the researchers contend, parallel precisely the attention a society devotes to its most memorable events (whether the Watson–Crick paper on the structure of DNA or Michael Jackson’s Thriller video). Watch this video and you’ll see what Neruda—and the MIT researchers—mean.