Meyer Landsman, the Sitka, Alaska–based protagonist of Michael Chabon's award-winning novel The Yiddish Policemen's Union, “swayed in the canvas webbing of the weary old 206.” The 206 is a single-engine Cessna that can be converted to a floatplane, a factoid I happened to know when I read that line late on August 28 because earlier that day I rode shotgun in a 206 that took off from the water strip that parallels the main runway at Juneau International Airport. This 206 dipped me between mountains for an astounding view of the nearby Casement and Davidson glaciers.
The obvious question now is, How did a nice Bronx boy, who knows the Lexington Avenue subway line like an Iditarod musher knows her dogs, get to bouncing around low and slow over ice fields a short jump from Sitka? On a Scientific American/Bright Horizons cruise, kaynahora, organized by Neil Bauman and Theresa Mazich of Insight Cruises. They create the cruises and other special-interest trips with an intellectual appeal. Despite that cerebral qualification, I was invited along on the Alaska edition. The voyage consisted of two weeks onboard the Holland America Line's MS Amsterdam, as we visited the hot spots of southeast Alaska. I learned that a “sliming table” can refer to a workplace in a salmon-processing plant. In New York City, it's what we sit around to discuss friends and family.
In the face of seemingly uninterrupted opportunities to enjoy caloric intake both on and off the ship, I managed to actually lose weight on the cruise. This paradoxical feat was achieved through a combination of techniques. First, portion control. No need to eat everything at the buffet when you realize that you can try the Baked Alaska, of course on the menu, at the next of the approximately 40 shipboard meals. Second, choose the fish. Watching black bears plucking salmon from a stream outside of Ketchikan naturally gives one a hankering for the same meal, albeit perhaps cooked on a cedar plank. Third, always take the stairs, although I sometimes peeked into the ship's elevator for vital information—a floor mat announces the day of the week. That policy may seem comical until you've been at sea for a week and a half: What's a “Tuesday”?
Besides fish, I ingested fillets of knowledge. When at sea, we were treated to some 25 sessions with a diverse faculty, including Larry Cahill, neurobiologist at the University of California, Irvine; Robert Fovell, atmospheric and oceanic scientist at U.C.L.A.; James Gillies, head of communications at CERN; Peter Smith, professor emeritus of planetary sciences at the University of Arizona; and David Stevenson, planetary scientist at the California Institute of Technology.
Listen for clips from some of these lectures on the Scientific American Science Talk podcast, including Fovell's explanation as to why the notion of a freezing air mass that descends on New York City in the movie The Day After Tomorrow is goofy. “Instead of that air coming down at −80 degrees Fahrenheit, its original temperature perhaps at the tropopause, the top of the lowest layer of the atmosphere, it should come down and compress at the dry adiabatic lapse rate, which is 30 F per mile … by the time [the air] reaches the ground, it should have been about 140 degrees F.” We all knew that movie was a hot mess.
Cahill discussed the recently discovered phenomenon of HSAM, highly superior autobiographical memory. The handful of people with HSAM have an uncanny ability to catalogue and retrieve information about their experiences on pretty much every day of their lives after young childhood. (An unusually developed bundle of brain tissue called the uncinate fasciculus looks like it may be involved in the condition.) Actor Marilu Henner is among them and was asked, during an interview with Bob Costas, about her activities on various dates, including that of the first manned moon landing. At the mention of July 20, 1969, Henner became a bit embarrassed because, she eventually revealed, that same night she lost her virginity. To which Costas replied, “Well, one thing we know for sure, Neil Armstrong wasn't the culprit.”
After that memory talk, a participant asked Cahill if he'd ever thought of asking one of the HSAM folks, “Do you only go on a vacation once and just think about it again? You'd save a lot of money.” To which Bauman, rumbling like a calving glacier, shouted, “Shame on you!”