It’s All Plasma.

physiologyScientists 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.


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  1. Gilly Maddison

    Let’s not forget outer space which is, apprently, stuffed with plenum just waiting to be brought into various physical forms by our thoughts. Mine’s a fully crewed yacht thank you.

    The video is the funniest nature documentary I have ever seen. Thank you for starting my day with laughter.

  2. Chuck Baudelaire

    When I die, I want to come back as a mantis shrimp. Really.

  3. Ann Koplow

    Thank you for this post, which supersedes everything.

  4. mydangblog

    I definitely don’t have synesthesia, but I do know that beets smell like death. I’ve also always been fascinated by the idea of the discovery of a new colour. Then I wonder what it looks like but I can’t picture it because how will I know when I see it? And now I’m worried that my eyeballs might explode from sensory overload. Then again, since we’re giving names to tastes that we apparently already can detect, maybe we see new colours all the time but we just need scientists to tell us what they are…

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Or maybe we need artists to name new colors. With the mantis shrimp that can see colors far outside our visible spectrum I wonder if we can imagine what that would look like. There’s a Lovecraft story, “The Color out of Space”, about a meteor that glows a color never before seen on Earth and I found it really hard to picture that.
      Of course the story was from 1927 so I guess anything fluorescent would work.


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