June 2017

An alternative title (or a subtitle) to this blog entry might well have been My Adventures in Anosmia. Anosmia for those who might not know is the lack of ability to smell. It might be caused due to trauma, a bad infection (I’ve heard) and may be temporary or permanent. In my case it was congenital, that is to say I’ve been anosmic since birth, and therefore the condition is permanent. It has something to do with the way the olfactory grooves in the brain were formed or not formed, I believe. I just didn’t or couldn’t get into the groove, one might say.

Despite being born anosmic, neither I nor indeed anyone around me cottoned on to the fact for many years. Even now, even folks closest to me, including my Mom forget and will hold out something to me and say something like “isn’t this lovely?” or “smell this,” and I’ll obligingly sniff. The habit is deeply ingrained because it wasn’t until I was past twenty-one when a doctor pointedly asked me about my sense of smell and I thought about it, that I finally learned for a fact that I actually couldn’t smell. The fact was confirmed by a series of medical tests…

Now that I think about it, there had always been hints, but only in retrospect do I recognize them as such. For instance, I remember reading about an experiment  in which a blindfolded person was asked to identify a piece of fruit–apple or pear–fed to them while the other one was held to their nose. According the to book most people would identify the fruit by smell not taste, but no, not I. At the time I was puzzled because I always unerringly identified the fruit I was eating, whereas most others gave mixed responses. I was evidently relying on other clues such as texture to make my guess. Then there was the fact that I always needed to do a taste test (or sometimes a curdle-in-hot-water test) to figure out if  milk had turned. And my enthusiasm as a teenager for the perfume Chanel No. 5 was a mere peer imitation. Fact of the matter is that no matter which perfume was held to my nose, all I got from taking a whiff was a cold rush of air through my nostrils! More often than not, it was the color of the liquid or the design of the bottle that determined my choices.

Unlike blindness, which is to sight or vision what anosmia is to the sense of smell or olfaction, anosmia is not easy for most people to understand or identify with. Indeed, more often than not people have not heard of the word, and when I tell them I can’t smell, their reaction, after perhaps the assumption that I have or have just had a cold, is  one of puzzlement combined with a vague sense of disbelief. Then when I explain, the first question almost is always is “How do you taste?” And aside from occasionally being unable to resist a comeback along the lines of “Delicious” or holding out my hand with a “want to find out?” (Only if I’m fond of the person), I try to  explain that my sense of taste is not impaired. Or at least it is not diminished in the sense of the range of foods I can discern and enjoy. I think this ability might be attributed to the fact that I learned to taste  in a different way than do most others, My nerdy/geeky scientific self thinks it might be a compensation by the trigeminal nerve for the inactive olfactory nerves/groove.  But back to the question: not only can I taste, but as friends will attest, I love variety in my meals, and am a pretty good cook… who can often re-create or at least simulate dishes based on taste alone!

It was in fact my ability in the kitchen that led certain musically savvy roomies of mine to give me the nickname that prompted the title of this post. Beethoven the composer famously started to loose his hearing sometime in his twenties and was almost completely deaf for the last decade or so of his life.  (A quick aside… All this biographical information incidentally was checked out on Wikipedia). As I said before, I didn’t lose my sense, never having possessed it in the first place, but the analogy was apt in any case, and the compliment much appreciated. That my activity in the kitchen was often accompanied by strains of a four-handed arrangement of Beethoven’s Seventh played by my roomies adds an additional layer of sweetness to both the nickname and the memory of it. (#51).

2017-05-22 16.53.26I love puns–good ones (if there are such things) and bad with almost equal affection–and can never resist the opportunity to use them. Especially here in this blog since no one will cut them out. But really, how am I expected to resist this one ? After all, the reason I’m here in Madison is to work at the archives on the papers of the scientist Howard Temin, and his work will be the terminal event in my book. But other coincidences abound. Witness, for instance this photograph that I snapped my first week here. No one told me it was here… but as I was walking  from the Steenbock library (where the archives are housed) to the Memorial Union building, what should I encounter but this plaque! The walkway is a beautiful lakeside path along the north edge of campus on the shores of Lake Mendota, one of 3 (or 4) lakes that grace this town. It gives me a special feeling knowing that as I walk along this pathway the destination are the papers of the very same person.

A quick biographical note on Temin (since this post is marked as a schistorian entry). He was an American virologist who received a third of the 1975 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his discovery of reverse transcriptase, the enzyme that makes DNA molecules from RNA templates. Even before this discovery, Temin had made waves by suggesting while still a graduate student that such a thing might be possible. Since the suggestion flew in the face of what was then the Central Dogma in biology he was not taken too seriously. Nevertheless since he did excellent work in the laboratory, he got his PhD, and a few years later proved himself right. Why he features in my research is that the model or subject of his speculations was the Rous sarcoma virus (RSV) which is one of the two viruses whose tale (à la Dickens)  I’m trying to tell in my book. More on the book in a future post. Now I need to get to actually writing it.  (#52)

What does it say about my ability to abide by the eponymous resolution of this post, when it took me three tries to even get the spelling of the word right in the title? Not, as I imagine many people might think, that I’m out of practice typing–because I’m not not–but perhaps it’s a Freudian slip because I don’t want to make a resolution I may not keep?

So what’s this resolution? Well inspired by a similar one that I just finished reading about in a different blog/articles website, it is simply to contribute something to this blog once a week. At least once a week I should say. Regardless of what else I write or not, or what I’m doing, I think writing here just once a week is not an un-keepable goal. I did start something like this based on a book a few years ago, but other than putting down the prompts for several in the drafts section of this blog, it didn’t go very far. Not because I think I owe anyone anything really.. early on when I created the blog it was with a promise to myself to be guilt-free for not writing. I stand by that sentiment, but this once-a-week exercise is more of a discipline-building one. Just to prove to myself that I can. No other conditions or stipulations about topic, etc etc. Just write… at least one entry per week here, in my peregrine chronicles, which means it cannot be about food really, since that topic I reserve for my other site.

So where am I? I just took a quick read back at my blogs over the past two years, and actually have to admit that the record wasn’t too shabby compared to the previous three. But almost exactly 3 years ago, I entered something about the flight of this peregrine, and reading the optimism of that post, makes me want to weep. Because optimistic is certainly not the way I’d describe myself any more. Exhausted, disheartened and yes, even defeated is how I feel more often than not.

Having said that though… not all is bad, even now. Though jobless for two years now, I’m in Madison Wisconsin on a short fellowship to work at the archives of a scientist who features in my book (that at least is still progressing even if the move to India turned out to be a jump from one frying pan into another or to be ethnic about it from the Korean barbeque into the kadhai). Madison is a lovely town–not quite big enough to merit the label city–with lots of lakes and the University Union building sits on one of them and I’ve spent a lot of my waking hours here.

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