Livin' on the MDedge

The scents-less life and the speaking mummy


 

If I only had a nose

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Deaf and blind people get all the attention. Special schools, Braille, sign language, even a pinball-focused rock opera. And it is easy to see why: Those senses are kind of important when it comes to navigating the world. But what if you have to live without one of the less-cool senses? What if the nose doesn’t know?

According to research published in Clinical Otolaryngology, up to 5% of the world’s population has some sort of smell disorder, preventing them from either smelling correctly or smelling anything at all. And the effects of this on everyday life are drastic.

In a survey of 71 people with smell disorders, the researchers found that patients experience a smorgasbord of negative effects – ranging from poor hazard perception and poor sense of personal hygiene, to an inability to enjoy food and an inability to link smell to happy memories. The whiff of gingerbread on Christmas morning, the smoke of a bonfire on a summer evening – the smell-deprived miss out on them all. The negative emotions those people experience read like a recipe for your very own homemade Sith lord: sadness, regret, isolation, anxiety, anger, frustration. A path to the dark side, losing your scent is.

Speaking of fictional bad guys, this nasal-based research really could have benefited one Lord Volde ... fine, You-Know-Who. Just look at that face. That’s a man who can’t smell. You can’t tell us he wouldn’t have turned out better if only Dorothy had picked him up on the yellow brick road instead of some dumb scarecrow.

The sound of hieroglyphics

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The Rosetta Stone revealed the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphics and unlocked the ancient language of the Pharaohs for modern humans. But that mute stele said nothing about what those who uttered that ancient tongue sounded like.

Researchers at London’s Royal Holloway College may now know the answer. At least, a monosyllabic one.

The answer comes (indirectly) from Egyptian priest Nesyamun, a former resident of Thebes who worked at the temple of Karnak, but who now calls the Leeds City Museum home. Or, to be precise, Nesyamun’s 3,000-year-old mummified remains live on in Leeds. Nesyamun’s religious duties during his Karnak career likely required a smooth singing style and an accomplished speaking voice.

In a paper published in Scientific Reports, the British scientists say they’ve now heard the sound of the Egyptian priest’s long-silenced liturgical voice.

Working from CT scans of Nesyamun’s relatively well-preserved vocal-tract soft tissue, the scientists used a 3D-printed vocal tract and an electronic larynx to synthesize the actual sound of his voice.

And the result? Did the crooning priest of Karnak utter a Boris Karloffian curse upon those who had disturbed his millennia-long slumber? Did he deliver a rousing hymn of praise to Egypt’s ruler during the turbulent 1070s bce, Ramses XI?

In fact, what emerged from Nesyamun’s synthesized throat was ... “eh.” Maybe “a,” as in “bad.”

Given the state of the priest’s tongue (shrunken) and his soft palate (missing), the researchers say those monosyllabic sounds are the best Nesyamun can muster in his present state. Other experts say actual words from the ancients are likely impossible.

Perhaps one day, science will indeed be able to synthesize whole words or sentences from other well-preserved residents of the distant past. May we all live to hear an unyielding Ramses II himself chew the scenery like his Hollywood doppelganger, Yul Brynner: “So let it be written! So let it be done!”

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