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Experimenting with the sense - Part 3

From the LabLit short story series

Mark Keane 14 February 2016

One more mouthful, measurements must be made in triplicate to ensure reproducibility and remove any question of experimental error. These considerations seemed meaningless when dealing with this dolt, his daughter

Editor's note: We are pleased to present the third episode of a four-part, gothic short story by chemical engineer Mark Keane. Use the navigation links above right to catch up with Part 1.

The Professor began with something relatively innocuous, though not trivial. Juliet’s response would provide the proof which his work to date had so stubbornly lacked.

The work would first focus on the taste receptors. He positioned his daughter on a straight-backed chair in his study and locked the door. He instructed her to sit still as she had already begun to jiggle her legs and move in her seat.

The Professor stood before her.

This is most serious, Juliet, and you have agreed to cooperate and follow my directives.

He produced a navy Pashmina scarf from a drawer and tied it around her head to cover her eyes. The scarf belonged to his dead wife. What would she think of his actions if she were alive today? He cast the thought to one side.

This is only to ensure that you concentrate all your senses on taste. You do understand.

She nodded mechanically.

He took a bowl of Beezie’s porridge that he had saved from breakfast that morning. He spooned a sample into Juliet’s mouth, which she swallowed.

Can you describe the taste? Take your time.

It’s yucky, it’s cold and yucky.

The Professor experienced a flash of rage. It was hopeless working with this simpleton. He recalled vaguely that Juliet never ate porridge for breakfast. He should probably have warmed it and added sugar but it was too late for that.

You must take another mouthful. Now, how did that taste?


Why was she so moronic?

One more mouthful, measurements must be made in triplicate to ensure reproducibility and remove any question of experimental error.

These considerations seemed meaningless when dealing with this dolt, his daughter. The same response to his question. Yucky. Futile, absolutely futile. But he must press on.

He took the small beaker of solution he had prepared in the laboratory the day before. A twenty millilitre volume, about half a mouthful. He was working in the dark in terms of quantity and concentration but this particular complex should block the amiloride inhibitor and stimulate the salt receptor.

He held the beaker to Juliet’s lips. Swallow slowly, he directed in a kindly voice that was the closest approximation to geniality he could summon.

He saw from the movement of her neck that Juliet had swallowed the liquid. She immediately began to gag and splutter.

Yucky, yucky, it’s horrible.

He put an arm around her shoulders and covered her mouth. Heaven forbid if she were to vomit up this solution, months of research wasted. She struggled against him but finally settled.

He patted her on the head. You are a very good girl. Remember, breakthroughs in research come with some discomfort. That wasn’t too bad, was it.

Juliet did not seem convinced and had become sullen. He was annoyed by the theatrical wipe of her hand across her mouth and the petulant kicking of the chair leg.

Let’s try the porridge again. The experiment would soon be over. One spoon of porridge. Yucky. Second spoon, yucky. Third spoon. Juliet squealed her response. Yucky, yucky, yucky!

She pulled the scarf from her face and began a blubbering that presaged full blown bawling. There was nothing the Professor could do. He lifted her from her chair and pushed her out of the study. He was not willing to endure another childish hissy fit.


The Professor sat slumped in his old and scuffed Chesterfield for the entire afternoon. He could not face returning to the university. He desired only solitude to wallow in self-pity and embrace defeat. His sense of bathos was bitter. Was this the only taste his work was to induce?

Some hours later the study had darkened when he became aware of a scraping at the door. He could discern the outline of Beezie in the doorway. She was clearly agitated.

The Professor was in no mood to deal with her irrelevant trifles. He pulled himself from his armchair, turned on a light at his desk and furiously demanded to know why he was being disturbed.

Beezie, in a more meek and obsequious manner than usual, expressed plaintive concern for Juliet. What was this, the Professor felt a sudden fizz of panic surge through his body. Had he poisoned the girl? Had she gone the way of the fish, Carass?

Beezie explained in nervous stuttering that Juliet had been so despondent that afternoon she had given her a large slice of chocolate cake and a glass of milk. The girl did not finish the cake or milk as she claimed both tasted salty, far too salty for her to swallow. They made her sick. This was remarkable, a chocolate cake that tasted salty. A cake, moreover, that Beezie had made from a recipe which had been in her family for centuries. She sampled the cake herself and it tasted anything but salty. It was rich and chocolaty, delicious if she said so herself. Beezie believed the family doctor should be called in for Juliet was surely ill.

The Professor felt a wave of relief mingled with contentment wash over him. So this is what success felt like. It was so long since he had experienced it if indeed he ever had. He brushed aside Beezie’s concerns. There was nothing to worry about, just another one of Juliet’s fancies. With Beezie ushered from his study, the Professor helped himself to a glass of brandy. He had an irresistible urge to share this development. He should get hold of Prausnitz. But no, it was too premature for that. This was not the time for revelation. That would have to wait.


The Professor sought out Juliet. She was moping in her bedroom, her favourite floppy rabbit toy wrapped in her arms. He whistled tunelessly as he entered the room but his affability was clearly forced. He attempted an uplifting tone to raise her spirits, assuring her that the experiment had been a resounding success and in large part due to her involvement.

This did not interest Juliet. He tried to sway her by exaggerating her contribution but his powers of persuasion were not up to the task. This was not his modus operandi. He had never seen the need to coax or cajole when it came to research. The directives he delivered with authority in the laboratory were a consequence of detailed deliberation and were meant to be followed.

But it’s yucky and salty.

It was clear that Juliet could not appreciate her incidental role in the advancement of science. The Professor turned to possible short-term rewards. He would increase her weekly pocket money allowance. He even held out the promise of relenting on the embargo on pets. Possibly a puppy for her to play with. A cairn terrier like Dorothy’s Toto.

This did not seem to cut any ice with Juliet: the chocolate cake is salty and yucky.

A minor detail, why would the child not listen to reason? We can rectify that and have everything taste sweet.

Juliet perked up instantaneously, her eyes widening. Can we really?

Of course.

She grabbed him around his waist and he was forced to put up with more cringe-making childish glee. It was necessary to keep her happy. The child was to be served chips for her supper and every other meal until further notice. Chips with no added salt. This was met with raised eyebrows and an incredulous stare from Beezie. The Professor dismissed any debate with a ferocious stare.


Juliet’s sense of taste gradually returned to normal and by the end of the week her food no longer came with a salty tang. Chocolate tasted as chocolate should.

The Professor spent long hours in the laboratory incompetently assisted by his worthless research students. It took him over a month to synthesise and adequately purify the complex he believed would activate the heterodimer sweet receptors. The delay was in part necessary to ensure he had sufficient quantities for a systematic assessment of his daughter’s response to varying doses.

In due course Juliet was seated in the same uncomfortable chair in his study. She refused to wear a blindfold. The Professor had taken the necessary steps to avoid disagreeable scenes. He included food colouring in the solution for ingestion and added Yacon syrup as a sweetener. He held the small beaker before her. She recoiled and looked away. It was then that he realised his mistake in using green colouring. The incident with Carass was still of course fresh in the girl’s memory.

He swallowed his own distaste and with a sickly smile attempted to wheedle her into taking a drink. Juliet took the beaker to her lips, sipped uncertainly and emptied the contents. Given the prior result the Professor delayed the actual taste tests. There would be no problematic porridge on the menu this time.

He sat at his desk and worked on a number of papers as Juliet curled up on the Chesterfield and leafed indiscriminately through Beezie’s housekeeping magazines, her comics and arbitrary chemistry journals that lay about the study. And so the two sat immersed in their individual reading, unlikely familial partners in research. They were possibly not so dissimilar to W ł adys ł aw Sk ł odowski and the young Marie Curie.

The Professor stood from his desk and indicated that Juliet was to resume her position on the chair. He took a plate from the sideboard and handed her a single saltine cracker. She broke it in half, placed one piece in her mouth and began to crunch. He ignored her noisy munching and enquired patiently, how does that taste?

Sweet, it’s so sweet, she screeched through masticated biscuit. She ate the second half. So sweet and tasty. The Professor felt a surge run through the veins in his arms, his neck and body. Not blind exhilaration this time, more a pleasant reassuring swell. He handed Juliet a teaspoon heaped with salt. She placed this on her tongue, closed her mouth and wagged her head from side to side. So sweet, so tasty and sweet.

Success, the bliss of confirmation. The sweet taste of being proven right.

To be continued...