Skin Deep

A doc­tor traces the com­plex jour­ney of the om­nipresent hu­man or­gan

India Today - - LEISURE - By Da­mayanti Datta

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.

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