Robinson Crusoe Quote

"He preferred, however, "gourmandization," was an idolater of a certain decent, commodious fish, called a turtle, and worshipped the culinary image wherever he nozed it put up."
---The Contradiction (1796)

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Lost Illusions

"There may be found many Mechanical Inventions, to improve our Senses of Hearing, Smelling, Tasting, Touching, as well as we have improved that of Seeing by Optick Glasses."

I pulled this quote from Robert Hooke's 1665 scientific best-seller, Micrographia, a work that did much to attract scientific attention to the formerly unseen.  But did Hooke's sensory optimism ever come to pass?

One would think so.  In the early days of the Royal Society, the sense of taste garnered a great deal of scientific interest.  Tongues (human, bovine, and elephantine) were pricked, poked, sliced into pieces and slid under a microscope in order to understand how sapid particles imparted the sensations of sweetness and saltiness.  Scientists assiduously debated the number of flavors (and flavor combinations) that existed.  And I was particularly amused to read Robert Boyle's attempt to trick unwitting subjects into believing a mystery substance made of roots could taste like a delicious raspberry wine.  Equipped with state-of-the-art single lens microscopes, it seemed as if an army of chemists, botanists and anatomists would be able to explain the tricky subject of taste preferences in no time.

Yet the more research that was poured into understanding the sense of taste, the less the sense of taste actually seemed to be understood.  By the dawn of the 18th century, John Houghton's Newsletter reveals a much more pessimistic attitude regarding any standardized measurement of the gustatory sense:

“Tis to be wish’d there were discovered a good theory of smell, as also of taste, etc. but ‘tis rather to be wish’d for than expected; but if it could be done, we should then make a considerable improvement of the art of perfuming.”

In less than forty years, Hooke's enthusiasm had given way to distanced, practical resignation.  Why this change in sentiment?  Perhaps the question isn't "what did scientists say about taste?" but rather, "Why did scientists give up on taste?"