A doctor traces the complex journey of the omnipresent human organ
Skin: It’s the first thing you notice when you look into a mirror; it’s what strikes you first when you meet others; it’s where you perceive pleasure and pain; it’s how you reach out— for a warm handshake, an exuberant high five, or a kiss; it’s the first sense to ignite and the last to fade out, as your life pans out from birth to death. And as Sharad P. Paul— doctor and writer— writes in his new book, Skin: A Biography, “No other organ excites, irritates and also envelopes our very being like skin does.”
Paul has plumbed the depths of skin biology, to come up with fascinating questions ( and answers) that we often forget to ask about our largest and most visible organ: Did you know that one single pigment is responsible for all variations in skin colour among humans? And that’s just the body’s way of adapting to the climate and ultraviolet rays? Does that mean the entire human race had the same skin colour millions of years ago? What happens to racism, then, or the Indian fondness for “fair brides”?
Paul’s book is an attempt to understand the complex journey of skin: The way it has evolved over millions of years as an “omnipresent organ”, 20 sq ft in area, 3.5 kg in weight, active with 70 cm of blood vessels, 55 cm of nerves, 100 sweat glands, 15 oil glands, 230 sensory receptors and half million cells in every square centimetre. The story goes back to a “flat and primeval earth, where the sun was dominant and seas shallow”, when skin started to evolve as an organ. As time went by, skin changed, adapted, modified and tweaked itself: “In the end, our body ended up getting what it asked for.”
Storytelling is endemic to doctor- patient interactions. Medicine is ultimately all about the doctor’s ability to listen to patient narratives. Skilled with both scalpel and pen, Paul has used creative writing to explain science. His need to write stems from the fundamental questions he faces every day. The writing is crisp and enthusiastic, rich with fun themes and insights. But is skin the hero of the book? Despite Paul’s attempt to humanise the human birth suit, the primary characters are doctors and the focus of the book is squarely biological. With complex medical names, processes and diagrams, the occasional whiff of formaldehyde stalks the pages.
“This book is for people like me,” writes Paul, “intellectually curious and intent on expanding already existing knowledge.” In that, he has succeeded. It’s a must- read for the curious, the inquisitive and the seekers of knowledge.