On the flip side of obsessions

It would seem that my fidelity to this little corner of the Internet is in doubt. Once again, I have become the harbinger of neglect by staying away for so long. Thus, for the umpteenth time, I extend an apology to my readers (here, once again, I assume plurality). However, my conscience isn’t as burdened this time around as it was the past few times, as my absence has been more due to factors beyond my control as opposed to procrastination on my part.

In fact, the entity which caused said preoccupation is a huge contributor to the contents of this post. By a stroke of good fortune, and strenuous effort on my part, I managed to secure a month-long internship at one of the best research institutes in the country (bragging rights must be awarded here). Said internship was supposed to train me in basic laboratory protocol and techniques which may be of use to me later on in life when time came for me to take up science professionally. Things, by yet another stroke of luck, took a steep turn for the better. It so happens that I am now as involved in research as one could possibly be at this stage of their scientific education.

That more or less lays the background for the post (and gives me an excuse to feel better about myself), and so I feel confident when I launch into this post, which discusses one of the greatest ills which plagues me.

About a year ago I was diagnosed with “mixed obsessive-compulsive disorder”. The small black ink writing was definitive proof of a suspicion which I’d been harbouring for a few years, and it was bittersweet seeing that diagnosis officially confirmed: on the one hand, it told me that there was something the matter with me, something which would require an effort to overcome; on the other hand, it told me that a lot of my shortcomings were not entirely my fault. The latter, I think, was more therapeutic than the months of therapy that followed.

For years, the obsessive-compulsive tendencies had been getting on my nerves, and the glorification of “OCD” by western television had done nothing to help. All around me, people claimed to have, or worse – be, OCD, thinking that somehow having an all-consuming mental disorder made one “cool”. It bothered me that something which made daily tasks an ordeal for me was being mimicked and mocked around the world. You don’t pretend to have cancer to be cool, I’d say to anyone who would listen, so why OCD?

Until my internship started this Monday, I had always given a negative connotation to obsessions. Having been incapacitated by them all my life, it was only natural that I should have a sour feel about them. However, this week changed things, hopefully for the better. I realised the value of obsessions as I saw my guide poring over anomalies in the data which we had obtained from our experiment. He ran the same test multiple times, always getting visibly distressed, and intrigued, with the anomalies which repeatedly cropped up.

The following days involved me getting involved with the data analysis too, and I found myself obsessing over the data as well. There were times of introspection when I would curse my obsessive nature for causing me to get hitched on to trivialities, but then a rationalisation would intervene. I realised that this maniacal obsessing was essential for scientific advancement, and the ability to get hung up on tiny things which people wouldn’t normally give a second glance to was perhaps the greatest asset of anyone hoping to be anyone in science.

I’ve always been fond of dramatics and have been justly accused of melodrama and exaggeration of circumstance, and so maybe it’s me tapping into the inner drama queen when I say that this realisation was accompanied by the world spinning all around me.

Scientific research is inherently a slow process; it consists of visiting and revisiting of the experiments and the data, reviewing of basic principles and concepts, and so much more. Science demands reproducibility and repeatability. The simplest of experiments must be conducted over and over again to ensure that the results obtained aren’t anomalies but follow a pattern. I realised that obsessiveness plays a vital role in science (something which was reinforced today when I had to weigh out an infinitesimal amount of a compound, and obsessiveness wouldn’t let me go even a little over or under).

I have undergone many regimes to help me overcome my obsessive tendencies, none of which have had much success. Usually, I’d be awning for something therapeutic to come along and put my mind at ease. Recently, however, I’ve realised how big an asset obsessiveness can actually be. At the end of the day, it’s all about realising what you want to be obsessed with, and coming to terms with the fact that your obsession will consume you utterly.

Of course, things never really work that way. Despite this realisation, I found my obsessions just as disabling as they were before. I still spend half an hour this morning deciding what I would wear to the lab, and a further ten minutes deciding which route to take. However, these are quirks which have been an annoyance for years, whereas the positive spin is new, and by virtue of it being new and positive, it is more dear to me than the regular rigmarole. For a long time, I plan on revelling in the benevolence of my obsessive nature, and to channel as much of that obsessiveness in my work as possible.

As a poster in my lab proudly proclaims: “Research requires dedication and money”. Thanks to the obsessive tendencies, the dedication part is taken care of by itself.


The Science of Cooking

For many years now, I have been dabbling in the fine arts of the culinary and, indeed, have come to associate cooking with my hobbies and, I may be deluded here, my talents. Hard as I may try to think back to my first excursion into the kitchen or my first “dish”, I find that I cannot in honest faith recollect those initial incidences. I had what would seem an Athenian birth; wielding spatulas and cooking pans as I emerged fully robed in Chef whites.

Though I cannot precisely point to the event where my journey into the world of gastronomy began, I can certainly illustrate the time period where I finally realised that there was much more to food and cooking than the utilitarian nature which I had thus far believed. Soon after indulging in the sacred practice of cooking, I began to appreciate the skill of cooking for its aesthetic appeal and its sheer artistic value. My cooking procedure, which had earlier consisted only of following the recipe to the teaspoon, now comprised the usage of the appropriate amount of ingredients and making the food look good. Of course, being all of nine years old at the time, the extent of my presentation was chopping up some coriander and sprinkling it on top of whatever it is that I had cooked.

From there on, my journey through the world of cuisine was unending and unblemished, even by the sheer number of erroneous experiences I’d had. I then started to pay more attention to the ingredients, and the way those ingredients interacted with other ingredients, and every other concept of food imaginable right down to wine pairings, but vehemently ignoring calorific content, for obvious reasons. I soon reached that point where cooking became as intrinsic a way for the expression of myself and as great a necessity to my existence as writing itself, which is saying something.

Maybe a year or so ago, some of the steps during cooking which were a given (using a cold egg for baking; marinading meats in oil; allowing butter to melt before adding in the garlic; etc.) seemed to me to stem out of nowhere, and yet they were very necessary pieces of advice. If you have tried to use a warm egg for baking, you’ll know that the result is never quite as satisfying. Being the curious little child that I am, I found myself thinking on end about the reasons behind these idiosyncrasies and realised that since all food substances were, in fact, chemicals, there must be some reactions taking place here. And thus began my journey into the scientific approach to food.

I have been berated many times for “ruining” the artistic nature of cooking by making it technical and scientific, but I see it as further beautification of an already mesmerising phenomenon. To find out why ingredients behave the way they do, and what you can do to accentuate them even further, is to me a very stimulating idea. Of course, being an aspiring genetic engineer means that the idea of manipulation of natural entities for greater output is much more romantic to me than to others, who see the calculated precision of modifying ingredients as nothing short of blasphemy.

Of course, over time I have become rather skilled at ignoring the pointless droning on and opinions of those I obnoxiously call less aware. And so bearing my scientific approach proudly upon my sleeve, I set forth on my journey to explain the unfathomable divinity that is cooking with the help of science and thereby using this newfound knowledge to excel in the field of amateur chef-ness.

And so, earlier today, The Science of Cooking was born. It is yet another blog which I have started on the very nurturing platform that is WordPress (the other one is “Archives” if ever you have the desire to delve into amateur poetry). As the name suggests, The Science of Cooking is all about the chemistry and biology and physics and math of cooking and takes an empirical spin on the classic cooking techniques and recipes, as well as bringing up new, and experimentally tried, ways of making the kitchen life easier.

Please do check out The Science of Cooking; it promises to be great.