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A Natural History of the Senses

This film treatment was commissioned by WETA/​public television in order to raise funding from the National Science Foundation for a film version of Ackerman's wonderful book.


Remember the little submarine in "Fantastic Voyage” that shuttled past corpuscles big as gumdrops, down to the corridors of the heart? At the time, the film carried images as arresting as the Life magazine cover of the human embryo in the early Sixties. The time has come for another spectacular voyage - a 5-part journey through the senses - with each one capturing on film the scientific and sensual majesty delivered to us daily by our ability to smell, taste, touch, hear and see. Along the way, poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman, who received her P.H.D. from Cornell, will explain the mysteries of everyday life and celebrate the intoxicating blend of science and art, literature and folklore, history and personal adventure that has produced her bestselling book, A Natural History of the Senses.

A NATURAL HISTORY OF THE SENSES will lead us through a world of fluorescent lakes, colored vowels, images of the human body made from sound waves, and mood-altering smells. In the following pages, each of the five hours is outlined in a manner that will dazzle the senses as well as obey the logic of scientific inquiry: by examining what we observe; explaining how and why (the scientific bases for our perceptions); and exploring the human ingenuity which has sought to extend the sensory experience with perfumes, night vision, musical recordings and, more recently, human skin grown in labs at Cornell and The Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A NATURAL HISTORY OF THE SENSES will exploit the wondrous sounds and images now available to us on molecular, diagnostic, and even galactic levels, in addition to answering the most puzzling questions asked by both adults and children: What would the world sound like if we could hear all of its frequencies?; How do we feel pain?; What are our pheromones telling us?; How did Helen Keller 'hear' a symphony?; What do animals see?; and What have scientists learned from people who are missing one or more of the senses? Throughout the journey, Diane Ackerman will take a fresh look at age-old questions: Why do leaves change color in the fall?; What makes alligators dance?; Why do we crave chocolate; and What is it about music that reduces us to tears?


Smell

The author assumes the guises of various scent-obsessed women throughout history. Beginning with the sybaritic Egyptians, who invented the bath, Ackerman is Cleopatra, the devotee of perfume, who received Antony in a cedarwood ship with perfumed sails. Stepping off the boat, and down the social ladder, Ackerman becomes an ancient Egyptian socialite wearing a melting wax cone of unguent, which covers her head and shoulders with perfumed syrup.

Our host gossips about all the men who love scent as much as she: Alexander the Great, the lavish user of perfumes who soaked his tunics in the essence of saffron; Louis XIV, who insisted that a new perfume be invented for him every day; and Napoleon, who ordered his Empress Josephine not to bathe for two weeks so that he might return to enjoy her smell. "Smelling good", Ackerman explains, is a notion that varies from culture to culture. After all, Masai women use excrement as a hair dressing, and Elizabethan women kept peeled apples in their armpits for days until they were drenched with sweat, whereupon they gave them to their lovers to inhale.

In this hour, the cultural, literary, and scientific evolution of smell will be considered, along with a paean to the animals (usually on all fours with their heads hanging close to the ground) whose superior sense of smell gives their upright friends much to be humble about. Once guided by smell, we searched and hunted for food; and in a fishier incarnation, we were alerted to the arrival of a barracuda.

If we are still "led by the nose," we'll see what that means on the molecular level: Camphor, for example, is shaped like a sphere; it fits an elliptical site on a neuron, which triggers a nerve impulse to the brain. At the Monell Institute in Philadephia, we'll see how researchers benefit from the sense's "lock and key" properties as they experiment with the healing powers of smell. We'll take a look at pheromones - those personal scent-marks that make ants march single file through jungles, and which lead dogs to sniff trees, evaluating potential mates with the idiosyncratic pickiness of a human reading a personal ad.

The special topic in our aromatic story is reserved for perfume. We'll catch Sonia Grojsman, a professional nose from the International Fragrance and Flavors Inc. in New York, creating a new fragrance. In this sequence, we'll weave in scent-drenched observations from literature - going as far back as the "Song of Solomon," and carrying on through to the redolent memories of Proust, Colette, Virginia Woolf, Rilke, and Joyce. Finally, Sonia succeeds in discovering a new scent, one she's been working on for years. She compares the process to that of composing music - engaging similar skills of tone, color and balance.

Hearing

Off the coast of Florida, Diane Ackerman observes the swashbuckling dance of the male alligator. "Stretching its enormous head out of the water, it puffs up its throat, tenses hard like a body builder, and then a rolling thunder-buster bellow splits the air, and the water sizzles all around its body, raining upward like frying diamonds." Our sensory calling cards admit us only to the dance, but Ackerman explains how alligators are privy to the symphony of infrasonic signals (called echolocation) the dance produces.

Minutes later, we're under water, hearing rude sounds from a world we assumed was silent. "Croakers grunt loud enough to keep China Sea fishermen awake at night; Hawaiian triggerfish grind their teeth loudly; the male toadfish growls; bottlenose dolphins click and squeak like badly oiled office chairs." The frequencies audible to the human ear (between 20 and 20,000 cycles per second) are discussed along with the sounds which elude us: Our indefatigable host sets off to Texas with a bat detector, eavesdropping on the chatter of desert life; and in Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA scientists help Ackerman interpret the static pops of Jupiter's radiation and of the sun's magnetic field.

This hour will explore the science and evolution of hearing, beginning with more fanciful topics in the animal kingdom: How do birds learn the song of their parents?; Why do insects have ears under their wings?; and How does the dolphin's sonic bang make the anchovy hemorrhage? We'll chart the course of a sound in a human ear, from the moment air molecules move to the sound waves they produce - rippling through the curlicues, branches roundabouts, relays, levers, and feedback loops of our fantastically complicated inner ears. Finally, we'll demonstrate the uses of sound in diagnosing tumors, determining the sex of a pregnant woman's child, and levitating objects.

We will find out what it is like to inhabit a world without sound: Poet David Wright will evoke the poignancy of deafness by describing a world that "seldom appears silent." Of a breath of air small enough to unsettle a leaf, he writes, "I will hear that movement like an exclamation." Helen Keller, who lamented her loss of hearing above any other sense, will tell us how she longed for "The sound of the voice (which) brings language, sets thoughts astir and keeps us in the intellectual company of man."

The special topic for "Hearing" will be music: whale recordings; hymns; the earth music collections of Buddhist monks; opera; the 'song of ourselves' we earthlings sent off with Voyager I; and, in general, the abstract sounds that, as far back as we look, have stirred human beings to violently-felt emotions.

Taste

A Roman hall is the scene of an all-night dinner party: Mechanical devices lower acrobats from the ceiling; midgets perform cabaret-style; slaves drape garlands over guests and blow exotic scents while standing knee-deep in rose petals. Servants carry in course after course - one platter squirts saffron into a diner's face; another holds birds, which fly off when the dish is placed on the table. The host serves Diane Ackerman a calf. Inside the calf is a pig; inside the pig, a lamb; inside the lamb, a chicken; inside the chicken, a rabbit; inside the rabbit, a dormouse. This last item our author refuses, taking, instead, the opportunity to launch into a discussion about taste. She tells us that, like most people, she has 3000 taste buds, grouped by theme (salt, sweet, sour, bitter) - none of which is particularly tantalized by a dormouse. "It's not to my taste," she says, "But then, "Masai drink cow urine. Orientals eat stir-fried puppy. They wouldn't think much of the rancid cabbage we call sauerkraut."

This hour on "the social sense" examines the physiological basis for a range of "tastes" - everything from children craving sweets to, in some cultures, the more bizarre adult craving for mud. A scanning electron microscope allows us to see the taste buds that wear out every week but, on viewing, look huge and immutable as volcanoes on Mars. We'll explore the omnivorous eating habits which have helped us survive, and pity the koala bear, for whom a bad year in eucalyptus means no alternative food supply. An unflinching look at cannibalism and sacred cows will lead us to a segment on taste as it varies from culture to culture.

In Japan, Ackerman observes the deft work of a chef preparing fugu, a ferociously poisonous puffer fish containing tetrodotoxin, and comments on the diners who renew with exhilarating frequency their flirtation with mortality. She attributes the eating of fugu (and the almost systemic modern recklessness it represents) to an ancient longing for excitement. Horror films like "Cat People" and "Wolfen" rekindle our predatory fears about lions, sharks, snakes - the good old days, Ackerman argues, when being at the top of the food chain was more precarious.

The special topic for this hour will be chocolate. From Hershey Pennsylvania, our host (an avowed chocoholic) will discuss the psychopharmacology of a substance that - because of phenylethylamine (PEA) and more 200 chemicals - produces an amphetamine-like rush that scientists are at a loss to explain. The chocoholic family tree will show branches reaching as far back as Cortes, who introduced chocolate to Spain in the sixteenth century, and the members of Montezuma's court, where two thousand pitchers were drunk daily.

Touch

The hour opens with a humorous montage showing salutations from culture to culture - biting, smelling, saluting and nose-rubbing. The sequence ends with Ackerman narrating a classic American high school scene from the Sixties: "Nice girls didn't go all the way but...Man could we kiss! We kissed for hours in the busted-up front seat of a borrowed Chevy... we kissed inventively, clutching our boyfriends from behind as we straddled motorcycles... we kissed torridly, with tongues like hot pokers...we kissed furtively when we met in hallways between classes...we kissed soulfully in the shadows at concerts...
we kissed our pillows at night pretending they were our mates; we kissed shamelessly, with all the robust sappiness of youth."

Next stop is a preemie ward in Miami, where another display of affection enjoys therapeutic results. Ackerman massages a tiny baby, fragile enough to warrant a headdress of wires and electrodes which chart his progress as he sleeps. On a nearby monitor, two turquoise EKG and breath waves flutter across the screen. This is the first of three daily touch sessions he and the other babies in the ward receive. Ackerman explains that what seems like a cruel way to interrupt dreams is actually a life-giving act. Massaged babies gain weight as much as 50 percent faster than unmassaged babies, which leads scientists like Saul Schanberg, a neurologist at Duke University, to state without equivocation: "Touch is far more essential than our other senses."

This hour will explain the science and evolution of touch and reveal the wondrous properties of skin, the organ that stands between us and the world. The film will answer the following questions: What does touch do for us?; Why do people with multiple sclerosis often lose the ability to recognize objects by feeling them?; What do sponges, tapeworms, cockroaches, anteaters, penguins and rats teach us about touch?; How do we feel pain?; and What happens to the body's grasslands of neurons when we bruise, bang, tingle, scratch, bump or kiss?

The special topic for touch will be the regeneration of skin - to date, the only human organ scientists have succeeded in growing. We'll visit Tokyo University's chamber of skins, which contains the epidermal art of 300 fully tattooed humans, each one framed. This somewhat ghoulish celebration of skin reminds Ackerman that, elsewhere, cadaver skin is employed with life-sustaining results. At the New York Hospital's Cornell Medical Center, we'll see doctors using dead skin to grow sheets of "fresh" skin - a miraculous development for the treatment of burn victims.

Vision

Ackerman is perched on a cliff at Big Sur. A lighthouse beacon zooms out to ships at 186,000 miles per second. "The searchlight of the sun takes about eight minutes to reach the Earth...The light we see from the North Star set sail in the days of Shakespeare. Just think how straight the path of light is." But what happens when we bend it? Ackerman looks to the sky, where an arc of colored ribbons burns through a light haze: "Sunlight hits the prismlike drops of water and is spit into what we call a rainbow." Then there's the blinding surprise of ordinary things: " Many things catch the light prismatically - fish scales, the mother-of-pearl inside a limpet shell, oil on a slippery road, a dragonfly's wings, opals, soap bubbles, peacock feathers, the grooves in gramophone records, metal that's lightly tarnished, the neck of a hummingbird, the wind cases of beetles, spiders' webs smeared with dew."

This hour on "Vision" will explore the science and evolution of sight, beginning in the ancient seas - where patches of skin on life forms developed a sensitivity to light - and ending with the modern "predator's" eye, whose binocular vision is capable of judging motion, form and color. Using Point Reyes as a base, we'll skywatch and starwatch with Ackerman - and rely on her to explain basic principles of vision: Why is an apple everything but red?; What causes the 'green flash' before sunset?; and How does the eye resemble a camera? Finally, we'll look at the technological marvels that have enhanced our ability to see: the X-ray, telescope, microscope, scanning electron microscope, and CATSCAN.

As we watch what looks like a series of still photographs, Ackerman comments, "This is how "Lawrence of Arabia" would appear to a bee... To us, movies appear to be continuous when they move at 24 frames per second, because we process the images at 50 to 60 per second, whereas a bee is used to images flashing at 300 per second." A fanciful sequence on how animals see shows: the fly, whose peripheral vision we can only duplicate by looking through a paperweight; the bull, who doesn't see red when he charges the cape; butterflies, who see in the ultra violet range; birds, who can see the stars; and microscopic invertebrates in a lake in Puerto Rico who create their own phosphorescent light.

The special topic for "Vision" will be the artist's eye - the interpretation a painter or even a gem cutter brings to a medium, revealing how he or she sees. The results forever change the way we look at sunflowers, in the case of Van Gogh, or at a sapphire, literally in the case of The Museum of Natural History's Hall of Gems in New York. Ackerman will talk about Cezanne's myopia and other instances in which the problem with vision itself partially explains an artist's idiosyncratic style.