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Richard Axel is a science celebrity. He is brilliant, funny, and, oh yeah, he won a Nobel Prize. And I got to sit next to him at lunch the other day! He was in town to give a talk in my department. To give us grad students a chance to brush with greatness, we are allowed to have lunch with the invited speakers (woohoo, they let us out of lab! free food!). I find that many famous scientists (perhaps like famous celebrities? although I have yet to meet celebrities of the non-scientific persuasion) have quirky personalities. And Dr. Axel is no exception. He is larger than life, quite a tall man, and incessantly chews nicorette gum (this was confirmed by my boyfriend: during his interview for grad school at Columbia years ago Dr. Axel was also chewing said gum).
As I’ve said, he is an extremely intelligent man, and he has formed many ideas about the field of neuroscience, on which he does his research. He studies the olfactory system in particular (and was awarded the Nobel Prize with Linda Buck for discovering odorant receptors – the protein structures in your nose that detect smells). One student in the room asked him whether he thought that humans have pheromones – chemicals that animals use to communicate with each other about food, sex, predators. The behaviors that pheromones trigger are often innate, hard-wired, instinctual responses since they are about things essential to live and reproduce (eating, mating, avoiding being eaten…), as opposed to learned behaviors. Pheromones are detected much in the same way as smells, using the vomeronasal organ which is also in the nose, although in humans the vomeronasal organ is pathetic and wimpy and its function in humans is very controversial. Read the rest of this entry »