Adding Scientific Insight to a Sensual World

In college, a trick to surviving the rigors of the pure and applied science program was to choose mandatory humanities courses that were not too demanding in terms of work. Ironically, many of the courses turned out to be at least as stimulating as any science subject, and their content stayed with me for life.

In one humanities course, a teacher with an Afro-hairdo taught us how to sense-juggle. afroI especially liked practicing the technique in a safe park. We had to close our eyes and feel our clothes, the tingling breeze and temperature gradients between skin and surrounding. Then we shifted to sounds, listening to rustling leaves and to the background murmur of conversations and distant traffic. A minute later, it was back to the tactile world, followed by a shift to auditory stimuli. Next we tuned into  smells such as hexenals from freshly-cut grass or geosmin from soil bacteria. The fourth sense to juggle was taste. Even if we weren’t eating we could use the pleasant aftertaste of a recent meal. Finally, we opened our eyes and looked straight ahead but included all peripheral movement of passerbys, noticed the fluid rubbery movement of their legs (which somehow became more obvious if you let your head hang from the edge of a park bench and view them upside down) and the different hues and glimmers on the surface of leaves.

103_8696But why not extend the exercise and add scientific insight to the sensual world? If one is by the seaside and juggling the sound of rolling waves; the smell of algal compounds from minute droplets in the air; the taste of salt on one’s lips; the sight of the unbroken boundary between water and sky and the sensation of the sea breeze on exposed skin, why not wonder about the mechanism of wind direction? Due to water’s high specific heat, the sea warms up more slowly than the sand crystals in the sun. Air molecules colliding with the latter reach a higher temperature than those above the water. The warm air rises and spreads due to its lower density, lowering pressure above the land. Meanwhile colder air sinks above the sea and exerts more pressure. This allows the greater force of the cool air to push towards the warmer shore, so that we feel air’s accentuated movement as we continue to juggle between five senses and the concepts that were generated from within our brains.

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