Airports and the Science of Observation

By Abraham Verghese

joiseyshowaa filckr dubai airport.jpg
For one who has an interest in the body as text, airports are treasure troves of information. It seems almost un-American to enjoy delays, and perhaps enjoy is not the best word, but certainly a delayed flight, if it does nothing else, allows one the opportunity to make prolonged observations about one's fellow travelers.

"Why airports?" you might ask. Well, for one thing there is the lighting--the big picture windows that allow you to see planes taking off are marvelous at lighting skin, muscle. A turn of a woman's neck, an elegant profile, but also an enlarged thyroid, perhaps not pathologically enlarged, and yet readily seen, an entity that is more common in young women and in pregnancy.

But here is the real asset: airports offer long corridors, miles really, and the leisure of observing a gait as it plays out coming or going or both. The features of an old stroke, the so called "hemiplegic" gait, are readily seen (the arm flexed, the lower limb stiff and extended, the leg making a little outward semicircle as it moves forward --this is the circumducting gait). But at times the only vestige of the stroke is none of these things because there has been an almost full recovery, all but for the fact that the arm on the affected side does not swing easily as the person walks. This last, the arm swing, is an "associated" movement and is the last to come back. It is a rule in neurology, I am told, that the most recently learned functions are the first to go and the last to come back, and so it is with the arm swing.

Other common gaits? The shuffling gait of Parkinson's; the antalgic gait of someone with a bad knee; the occasional foot drop on both sides of a patient with neuropathy producing a decided lift of each leg with every step.

What else does one notice commonly? The furry brown darkened skin at neck creases in those who are overweight--it is a skin condition is called acanthosis nigricans and it suggests insulin resistance, potential diabetes. One also sees cafe-au-lait spots, cherry angiomas, tremors....

I could be here all day.

P.S. If you are wondering what I am doing in airports, I am on a book tour. Details here. I am trying to blog here, and make notes from the road on Twitter (@cuttingforstone) and on Random House's Facebook page for me, but really it is so tempting to just sit here and stare....

Photo credit: joiseyshowaa/flickr


This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/01/airports-and-the-science-of-observation/34276/