Some time ago I saw a film about a polar bear. He was, to all intents and purposes, alone. From an aerial view he could be seen methodically criss-crossing a valley, occasionally stopping to sniff the air. After one such sniffing, his criss-crossing ceased, he turned to his right and, with purpose, set off on a 60 km cross-country trek. He was making a bee-line for a female bear on heat. Back in the valley there could have been no more than one or two female molecules alighting on the smell-sensitive nerve endings in his nose. But they were enough to set him going, and it worked.

But noticing minutiae is not unique to bears. Whether or not their skills are learned, parents who come round to visit are famous for seeing specks of dust on painstakingly cleaned surfaces; or noticing stains on clothing otherwise thought to be impeccable. And parents themselves do not have a monopoly. I believe we are all observers in our areas of special interest. It could be minutiae relating to smells, sights, sounds, or even someone’s behaviour that are being detected. When walking in the countryside with a bird watcher recently, tweets and flashes of colour obvious to her completely passed me by. The same would go for a car mechanic sensing an engine not purring correctly; a structural engineer spotting a tiny crack in a wall; a painter seeing that two carefully matched colours didn’t do so … and so on.

Usually it requires some detective work, some extra insight or and/or an interest (the bear certainly had that!) to make something of the minutia. Some such addition was needed twice last week. I was sitting opposite a woman in the underground and gradually became aware she had a very faint and irregular pattern on her dark stockings. After a while, and much concentration, it became clear that the patterns were ‘geographical’ – shaped like countries on a map, tinged with blues and reds – and were asymmetric, i.e. different on the two legs. These were not everyday wear. Then I twigged. The patterns were not part of her stockings but emanated from some underlying tattoos – Elvis on the right, an ornate Virgin Mary on the left. I suppose her stockings were designed to hide all this.

The other detective work took place earlier in the week when my wife Rohan and I had a meeting with our new bank manager. Both of us noticed that the manager, a young woman, had a fine rash on her face. My wife thought nothing more of it. But as the meeting went on I, a one-time nosy doctor, was seeking out more information. The rash had a very particular pattern; it was restricted to the area overlying her cheek bones with the two sides confluent across the bridge of her nose. The manager was very helpful and after we left, Rohan commented how she hoped she would be able to advise us next time. In response I said she may not be there too long – to me her rash suggested a serious underlying illness. Whether or not it is coincidence, she has not replied to several emails we have sent since, asking for clarification of the information she had given us.

While we do not have the exquisite sense of smell of the polar bear, overall our senses are pretty powerful, though often, I suspect, underused. I have been trying to develop mine for years and am not bad on touch and sight but still lag very much behind my wife when it comes to sense of smell. Not a trivial matter as it almost put an end to an Indian cookery course in which detecting (and naming) different herbs from their scent was deemed critical. A bear by my side might have helped – but perhaps not. The environment of the kitchen is home to a myriad smells. In the barren Arctic, the smells from a future mate might have had little competition.


Photo credit: Ursus maritimus on sea ice close to Svalbard, Dr Hannes Grobe 1991 [Creative Commons CC-BY 2.5]

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