Scientists have announced that our tongues can detect another taste: starchiness. For millennia there were only four tastes: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Then umami was added in 1985 although technically it had been accidentally discovered decades earlier by the Japanese who were doing research on giant fire breathing reptiles. If you’re keeping count that’s six now, although if you’re keeping count it’s because you’re a primary school teacher frustrated at having to update your lesson plan and the colorful cartoon tongue hanging in your classroom again. And this discovery raises serious questions about what scientists will discover next. It’s bad enough that in middle school science class we learned that there are three
states of matter-solid, liquid, and gas-and then halfway through the year had to add plasma, which was very strange because the year before we’d learned that plasma is part of our blood but now we had to remember that there’s a different kind of plasma which is a state created by high energy atomic nuclei, and it’s important to keep one separate from the other and remember which one is in the human heart and which one is in the heart of the sun. And then it turned out nature might have at least fourteen other states of matter, not including my Aunt Lena’s Jell-o salad which everyone, including scientists, agrees is unnatural and should not exist. And we have absolutely no idea what other categories of matter, taste, or even color will be uncovered by scientists. We already know that while the human eye can detect three color wavelengths the mantis shrimp eye can detect twelve which must make mantis shrimp primary school classrooms very interesting. When I was a kid all primary school classrooms had a series of colorful pictures around the wall with all the colors of the rainbow from red to purple, but in mantis shrimp classrooms they must go all the way to, I don’t know, hyper puce maybe.
The discovery of new layers to our senses reminds me of synesthesia, a neurological condition that allows the senses of some people to intersect, allowing them to “see” sounds or “taste” colors even without the assistance of that bearded guy who passed out the sugar cubes while Pink Floyd played “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun”. Synesthesia enjoyed a brief surge of popularity in literary circles, or at least in creative writing classes when I was in college where we were encouraged to mix up the senses in our descriptions, coming up with images like “the mahogany smell of coffee”. After years of being told not to mix our metaphors it was as hard as wrapping our tongues around the idea of more than four states of matter, especially with my roommate who always went off and left the coffee pot on so that my best description of the smell of coffee was “wet ferret plasma”.
The important thing is it was an intersection of art and science, two things too often assumed to be separate, even though by the time synesthesia trickled down to creative writing classes it was a cliché, an important lesson for science too: most discoveries eventually get superseded by something else.