Sunday, January 27, 2013

Amuse-nez in Chelsea: ICONOSMS at Dillon Gallery

Last Thursday evening, walking west on 25th Street, the idea of attending a gallery opening suddenly felt like feeble excuse to be outdoors. I was being pummeled by an Arctic blast that raced across the river from New Jersey. The cold made my face hurt. Head down, I passed the Fisker showroom displaying a pumpkin orange Karma. I didn’t even stop. I marched past a gallery full of hipsters clustered around wall-mounted chunks of metal. Ahead of me, two guys wearing sneakers and tattoos were carefully arranging large black sacks in front of another well-lit gallery window. An assemblage? A performance piece? No, just setting out the garbage.

Then, near 11th Avenue, the icy wind whipped a warm floral perfume into my face and a moment later I noticed the sign for the Dillon Gallery. I had arrived. And I had already begun to experience the “osmo” portion of Volatile Marilyn #5, one of the ten new Iconosms created by Les Christophs.

These hybrid olfacto-visual artworks are the production of Christophe Laudamiel and Christoph Hornetz, the always interesting pair whose goal is “unleashed Perfumery,” an art form free of artistic, emotional and academic constraints. Each work consists of a scent (the Osmo), a visual element (the Icos), and a brief statement of the inspiration or intended experience.

For Volatile Marilyn #5, the scent is “a 21st century wink to Chanel N°5 (1921)” that “captures [Monroe’s] sheer whiteness, her innocence and her indefinable personality” as well as her ephemeral yet larger-than-life presence. It is diffused from a small unit located near Dreaming Marilyn DE#5, a print by photographer Laurent E. Badessi. Located nearest the gallery entrance, this was the scent that drifted out the doors and into the passing gale.

As with all the other works in the exhibit, Les Christophs are casually open about the formulation of Volatile Marilyn #5: “The 3 common ingredients found in both scents [i.e., Chanel N°5 and this piece] are rose extract, jasmine extract and methyl-nonyl aetaldehyde.” I’m not sure what the crowd (and it was a crowd—the large gallery space was soon packed) made of this information, but I found it engaging and illuminating, in the same way a wine menu might mention oaky notes in its Chardonnay. It drew me into the experience and offered contact points between my knowledge and the artists’ intent.

This transparency with respect to formulation is a signature of perfumer Christophe Laudamiel. He doesn’t mind you knowing how he achieves his effects. In Lilac Mon Amour, for example, he explains why natural lilac scent is unextractable from the floral source and how it must be recreated with other molecules from nature and the laboratory. He cheerfully refers to his artistic use of this rendering as a “trompe-nez” effect. The scent, diffused like most of the others inside its own small tent, is paired with a gorgeous print of a lilac blossom by photographer Brian Jones. The accompanying text captures the whimsical attitude of Les Christophs toward their art and audience:
“One can be transported as far as one wishes to go . . . or one can choose to remain under control, coercively preventing one’s own brain from day-dreaming . . . Just relax . . .”
It’s hard not to smile while reading this and inhaling the ultra life-like scent.

Not all of the visual elements are prints. In Gone with the Wind, colored threads unraveling from an embroidered cushion trail like scented kite tails in the breeze of a fan. In Fuller Helmets, the visitor raises his head into geodesic frames made of scented plastic. And in Muguet Patch 9, a collection of white stones sit on a swatch of AstroTurf; press them and they light up briefly as you inhale another trompe-nez effect—lily of the valley.

These are early days for olfactory art. There is no definition of it, only examples.The works on display in ICONOSMS are a delight. They are refreshingly free of dogma and politics; they do not attempt to shock. They lead the visitor by the nose and invite him to sample a specific experience. They entertain. And they are wonderfully self-curating.

Les Christophs “ICONOSMS” is on display at the Dillon Gallery, 555 West 25th Street in New York, from January 24 through February 6, 2013.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Swedish Definition of Erotic Catastrophe

From The Local:
The Victoria Milan dating site, which targets the market for Swedes wanting to have an affair, asked more than 2,000 of its more than 200,000 Swedish members what they find most irritating about their regular partner.
Being bad-tempered, whinny and nagging are the top turn-offs for Swedish philanderers.
Other complaints included the woman being too close to her parents, being stingy, not cleaning enough, poor personal hygiene and snoring. 
“I had no idea women had such poor hygiene!” Victoria Milan spokeswoman Dominika Peczynski told The Local. 
“In my opinion, farting in front of a person that’s supposed to view you in any kind of romantic or erotic way is a catastrophe.”
Maybe that explains these Swedish traffic signs . . .

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

French Stink Offends the English

The Paris police department issued a statement saying the gas posed no health risks but warned that it smelled like a mixture of “sweat, garlic and rotten eggs”.
Sounds pretty much like l’odeur habituelle de la France. Okay, maybe not the rotten egg part. We’re talking a mercaptan release near Rouen which blew south then up across the Channel into Kent.

The culprit? Lubrizol. Owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Blame Warren Buffett!

UPDATE January 22, 2013

Quelle horreur! It’s reached Dover.
"The smell is just like the worst flatulent person ever standing with their back turned to you," Dover resident James Boyes told the Daily Mail. "It is truly, truly awful."
It’s drifted over Hampshire, Dorset, Oxfordshire, Northampton and the East Midlands.

It’s even hit London. It’s bigger than big.
The National Grid, which would normally deal with up to 10,000 calls a day to its gas emergency phone line, had received more than 100,000 calls by 14:00 GMT. A spokesman said it was an "unprecedented" volume.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Perfume Brands Prefer Spokesbeards

My first thought on reading that YSL has selected Garrett Hedlund as its new spokesface:
Who the hell is Garrett Hedlund?
My second thought:
What’s with the facial hair on male smellebrities?
Third thought:
Could all those academic psychologists be onto something?
Maybe I should stop shaving.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Pill Goggles: The Consequences of Oral Contraceptive Use During Mate Choice

There is a well-established bias, in humans and other mammals, to select mates who are genetically dissimilar at the major histocompatibility complex (MHC). This bias is thought to be the result of preferences for body odor expressed during mate selection. It is also known that oral contraceptive (OC) use by women reduces or reverses this bias, with the result that couples who meet when the woman is on the pill will be more MHC-similar. MHC-similarity has a downside: women in these relationships report reduced sexual satisfaction with their partner and increased interest in other men.

This raises an interesting question: what are the consequences for a relationship that started during OC use when, later in the relationship, the woman quits the pill?

One possibility is that with his MHC-similarity now exposed to her nose, she becomes less satisfied with her partner and the relationship suffers. On the other hand, OC users tend to prefer men with high parental investment traits such as wealth and intelligence, rather than guys with studly masculine traits like a strong chin and dominant behavior (also associated with higher unfaithfulness to partner). So it could be argued that a woman who chooses her partner while on the pill is more likely to remain satisfied with the relationship.

Untangling these possibilities is clearly not something that can be done experimentally. The best approach is to survey large numbers of women regarding various aspects of their relationships. S. Craig Roberts and his research team did this, selecting for study women who had at least one child in the relationship. (This roughly standardized for relationship commitment and guaranteed that women who had been on the pill at the time of mate choice experienced a change in hormone profile when they quit it to become pregnant.)

The researchers surveyed 2,519 women, of whom about 40% were OC users when their relationship was formed; the other 60% were non-users. Among women in currently ongoing relationships (about 70% of the total), the results were striking:
Women who used OC during partner choice (compared with non-users) scored lower on sexual arousal with their partner, on satisfaction with his sexual adventurousness, and on sexual proceptivity and attraction towards him. They also rated their partner’s body lower in attractiveness compared with non-users. By contrast, these women appeared more satisfied with general (nonsexual) aspects of their partner: they were significantly more satisfied with his financial provision compared with women who were not using OC during partner choice.
Even after statistically controlling for several factors unrelated to OC use and mate choice, the main effects remained: OC use at time of partner choice was associated with lower sexual satisfaction and with finding their partner less attractive. Similar results were found for retrospective ratings of ex-partners. When it comes to ending a relationship, women who used OC during partner choice were less likely to split up than were women not using OC. However, when a split did happen, it was more likely to be made by the woman if she was an OC user at the beginning, than if she were not. Interestingly, women who were OC users during partner choice “were more satisfied with non-sexual aspects of their relationship, including the partner’s financial provision.”

Where does all this leave us with respect to our initial questions?

As the authors put it, “a woman’s use of OC at the time when she meets her partner has measurable downstream consequences for partnership outcome.” The results are consistent with the hypothesis that OC use interferes with smell-based adaptive preferences for MHC-dissimilar men: OC users run a greater risk of sexually unsatisfying relationships in the long run. Yet to the extent that OC users tend to select men on the basis of being good providers rather than studly, pill use might increase the odds of successful long-term relationships. One way or another, pill goggles affect how a relationship plays out in the long run

The study discussed here is “Relationship satisfaction and outcome in women who meet their partner while using oral contraception,” by S. Craig Roberts, Kateřina Klapilová, Anthony C. Little, Robert P. Burriss, Benedict C. Jones, Lisa M. DeBruine, Marion Petrie, and Jan Havlícek, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences 279:1430-1436, 2012.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Freud Envy?

The Association for Psychological Science will hold its annual convention this May in Washington, DC. A promotional program is included in the group’s current newsletter. As I leafed through it, something struck me about the photos of the invited speakers: a lot of the men have facial hair. So I did what any research psychologist would do—I analyzed the data.

Of the 59 male speakers pictured, 25 have beards, goatees, or moustaches. That’s 42.4% of them.

This strikes me as high. Perhaps it reflects a selection bias: after all, these are the alpha males of academic psychology. [Isn’t “alpha male psychologist” a contradiction in terms?—Ed.]

I wonder if there is department to department variation in academic facial hair. For some reason, I’d expect even more beards in the English department. How could anyone study Chaucer or the Metaphysical Poets and be clean shaven?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Scent Marketing Tips from Babies

The thing marketing experts like best about the sense of smell is its alleged emotionality. Feelings stirred up by odor are supposed to be a hot link to purchase intent. So get something—anything!—under the consumer’s nose and you will reap the benefits of scent marketing.

Cooler heads recognize that odor perception is also cognitive, if not predominately so. Smells have to be consistent with the product image or message; if they are not, consumers will think less of the promoted item or service.

A powerful and related effect is that of context, of sheer juxtaposition in time and place. If smell is part of the background when something memorable happens, that smell becomes a useful way of retrieving the memory. Context-dependent memory cues are a big topic in psychology, and lots of work demonstrates that the phenomenon exists in infants.

Developmental psychologists study it using something called the “mobile conjugate reinforcement task,” which sounds formidable but isn’t really. It consists of a ribbon attached to the baby’s ankle at one end and to a mobile hanging over the crib at the other. When the kid kicks, the mobile jiggles. Babies dig this once they figure it out. And when they are put in the same situation after a long interval (which for a baby is a week), they remember the association and start kicking—as long as the context remains unchanged. But if the classical music in the background has been replaced by jazz, it’s as if they’ve never experienced the kicking-jiggling connection before.

A new study from St. John’s University in New York examines odor as a contextual cue in 3-month-old babies. It extends some previous findings in ways mostly of interest to specialists, but the main result deserves attention. Beginning with the standard mobile-over-the-crib setup, the researchers used ambient scent (cherry or coconut, diffused near the crib for 10 minutes beforehand) as a context cue. A week later, the infant was returned to the crib. In the background was either the original odor, a different odor, or no odor at all.

The researchers quantified the infant’s kicking behavior and compare it statistically to kicking in the first session. Babies who got their original scent kicked more, showing they remembered that kicking causes jiggling. Babies who got a different odor or no odor kicked less; they no longer remembered the link between kicking and jiggling the mobile.

They key experimental difference was providing the original odor cue: it made the difference between remembering and not remembering. Or, as the authors put it, “the effectiveness of a reminder is very specific to what was encoded during the initial acquisition process.”

There’s a scent marketing lesson there. If you are looking to rekindle a specific memory, any old smell won’t do. It has to be the odor that was there when the memory was created. Context matters. Even if you’re only three months old.

The study discussed here is “Odor as a contextual cue in memory reactivation in young infants,” by Courtney Suss, Susan Gaylord, and Jeffrey Fagen, published in Infant Behavior and Development, 35:580-583, 2012.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Just Another Day in Fragrance Forensics


Apparently something in Oliver Wine Co.’s Beanblossom Hard Cider didn’t get along with the cans produced for it by Ball Metal Beverage Container Corp. Alleged defect in new 8 oz. cans interacted with the cider to produce stinky hydrogen sulfide. Customers complained. Product was recalled. Lawsuit followed.

Unfortunately, this kind of smelly dispute happens all the time despite best efforts of manufacturers and suppliers to insure that product and package are compatible.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Institute for Art and Olfaction is Happening

The Institute for Art and Olfaction is rapidly taking shape in Los Angeles under the enthusiastic leadership of Saskia Wilson-Brown.
The Institute for Art and Olfaction aims to instigate greater engagement with the art and science of scent. We will do this through a public education program, by building an archive of contemporary perfume releases, by creating an accessible laboratory for scent innovation, and by inciting cross-genre collaboration between perfumers and other creative practitioners.
The concept is great and so is the timing: fragrance at all levels—creative, commercial, and artistic—is in the midst of a great upheaval. Establishing a West Coast presence will be good for everyone. That’s why I signed on to be one of the group’s advisors.

Saskia has launched the Institute’s first fundraising effort on IndieGoGo. They’re about halfway toward their goal of $5,500. If you have a few bucks to kick in, I’d encourage you to do so. The deadline is February 5.

Don’t believe me? Then listen to these guys, including The Winsome Katie Puckrik™.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Sperm Wars: Lily of the Valley Revisited

One of the stranger stories in olfactory science is the apparent ability of mammalian sperm to respond to the odorant bourgeonal, which to the human nose smells somewhat like lily of the valley. Speculation has been that this pleasant floral scent is also a secret signaling molecule that guides sperm to the egg, by activating the odorant receptor OR1D2 located on the sperm cell’s surface.

Adding to the strangeness is the fact that, unique among odorants that have been tested, men are more sensitive to bourgeonal than are women. Men more sensitive to bourgeonal, sperm able to detect it—there seemed to be a compelling narrative.

Now it appears that the entire lily of the valley story needs to be rewritten.

Back in 2011, researchers led by Timo Strünker at the Center of Advanced European Studies and Research, in Bonn, Germany, took a closer look at the biochemistry of sperm, specifically at the mechanism underlying the progesterone-induced calcium ion (Ca2+) influx. The calcium influx activates a number of key physiological responses in sperm, including chemotaxis. The thought had been that a cell-surface receptor activated by progesterone kicked off a series of biochemical reactions leading to the opening of the CatSper Ca2+ ion channel. Once the channel is open, calcium ions flood through and into the sperm cell.

What Strünker and his colleagues demonstrated in their paper in Nature is that the CatSper channel is not opened by activation of a separate progesterone receptor. Instead, the CatSper channel itself (or an associated protein) serves as the progesterone receptor. (To anthropomorphize a bit: if you a progesterone molecule, you hold the key that opens the door directly; you don’t need to ring a doorbell down the hall and have someone open the door for you from the inside.)

While of interest mostly to biochemists, the Nature paper was a warning shot over the bow of Team Bourgeonal. It meant that separate, specialized receptors, such as odorant receptors, were not necessary for the calcium influx. In 2012, Strünker and team fired directly amidships. In an intricate and exhaustive set of experiments, they showed that the CatSper channel is activated by all sorts of molecules, including steroids, prostaglandins, menthol, bourgeonal, and several other odorants such as cyclamal, helional, and undecanal.

In other words, you can activate the CatSper channel by looking crooked at it. Or, as the researchers put it, “Activation happens through promiscuous, extracellularly accessible site(s) either on the channel itself or on associated proteins.” And this activation takes place completely independent of any odorant receptor for bourgeonal.

Team Strünker hypothesizes that the promiscuous CatSper channel “serves as a polymodal sensor for multiple chemical cues that assist sperm during their voyage across the female genital tract.” The idea that sperm are specifically attracted to bourgeonal’s lily of the valley scent is, it seems to me, dead in the water.

The studies discussed here are “The CatSper channel mediates progesterone-induced Ca2+ influx in human sperm,” by Timo Strünker, Normann Goodwin, Christoph Brenker, Nachiket D. Kashikar, Ingo Weyand, Reinhard Seifert, and U. Benjamin Kaupp, published in Nature 471:382-386, 2011, and “The CatSper channel: a polymodal chemosensor in human sperm,” by Christoph Brenker, Normann Goodwin, Ingo Weyand, Nachiket D. Kashikar, Masahiro Naruse, Miriam Krähling, Astrid Müller, U. Benjamin Kaupp, and Timo Strünker, published in EMBO Journal, 31:1654-1665, 2012.

ISDP: Kenneth, What’s the Olfactory?


It’s a dismal, wet, foggy day in January. And it’s the thirteenth of the month, time for us to scrape the bottom of the winter-time ISDP barrel and see what we can serve up to our loyal, if somewhat morbidly inclined, fanbase. As usual at this time of year, there’s not a lot to report. A hat tip to the Tiffany Network for supplying our meager portion.

According to CBS-TV Channel 21 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a lady called police when she woke up to “a foul smell coming from the vent system” from the apartment below hers. Police investigated and discovered the decomposed body of a middle-aged male, who may be that unit’s  tenant. Due to suspicious circumstances, they have launched a homicide investigation.

We went fossil hunting near Harrisburg years ago. The location was a shale slope beneath a freeway overpass by the Susquehanna River. It was rich with trilobites. We nearly got beaned by a Rolling Rock bottle flung out of a passing car. Telling this story makes us hungry for that central Pennsylvania specialty—scrapple. In our opinion, Habbersett® brand scrapple is by far the best. Sadly, stores near FirstNerve Manor no longer carry it.

CBS affiliate Channel 4 in Miami, Florida has the second incident. A tenant in a retirement home near Miami Gardens called the landlord to report a “bad smell” that had been coming from a neighbor’s apartment for a couple of days. The landlord, in turn, called the neighbor’s granddaughter who entered the apartment and found her grandmother dead and her grandfather unconscious. The new report discusses a malfunctioning gas stove and oven, yet the neighbor didn’t report smelling a gas leak. Hmm . . .

We’ve often acknowledged that dealing with ISDP complaints is an occupational hazard for apartment building managers and maintenance workers. So we understand why they’d like to hand off a complaint like this one. But asking the tenants’ granddaughter to look in on the scene strikes us as a poor call.

Friday, January 11, 2013

It’s Not What You Think It Is

What do you mean, “what is it?” It’s a scent stick, duh.
Harmon Scents has packed some of its popular scents into rub-on sticks that are easy to use and effective.
What’s not to get?
The sticks can be used for all manner of applications, including on clothing, scent wicks or on natural features such as rocks, stumps or vegetation.”
Still unclear on the concept? Try this:
. . . the sticks are available in 10 varieties, including Triple Heat, Dominant Buck, Bear-Cinnamon, Coyote, Fox, Doe Pee and Herd Blend-whitetail.
Right! It’s the Bull Elk Scent Stick.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Nissan Edges Toward a Logo-Scent

A custom scent is part of the enormous, multisensory Nissan exhibit that will tour ten global auto shows this year, beginning with next week’s North American Auto Show.
. . . the Nissan display features its own special scents and sounds, carefully choreographed to create a complete experience for visitors. A distinctive fragrance will be periodically released into the display area and the mood-setting background music will change with a subtly different vibe and energy for morning, mid-day and evening.
Nice touch!

In a video, Roel de Vries, Nissan’s VP of global marketing strategy, describes the scent as modern, vibrant, and exciting. He also calls it is “Oriental” while referencing the fact that Nissan is a Japanese company; so it’s not clear that it smells Oriental in the perfumer’s meaning of the word.

De Vries says that if the scent works well at the trade shows, Nissan may deploy it in the company’s dealerships.

Don’t Blame the Methane

There is a popular misconception that methane gas is stinky when, in fact, it is almost odorless. Methane (CH4) is the chief component of the natural gas delivered by your utility company. The company adds an obnoxious sulfur-containing chemical to the product as a warning agent for leaks. People who don’t know better conclude that the methane itself stinks.

The misconception is reinforced in local press reports about odor problems at garbage dumps and landfills. Methane and other gases are generated by bacterial activity as food scraps decompose. However, the rotten smell emerging from the trash heap is not due to the methane, but to other molecules that do stink. Depending on the type of waste and local conditions at the dump, the smell can get pretty intense.

In some landfills the volume of methane is large enough to create a threat of combustion. Then it must be collected via pipes and vented or burned. Sometimes it pays to use it to fuel a steam plant or electrical generator. These systems collect and burn foul-smelling non-methane gases as well, which may make the landfill somewhat less stinky. Then again, it may not.

Now consider yesterday’s headline in the Taunton [Massachusetts] Daily Gazette: “Company vows to eradicate foul odor at Taunton landfill.”

The story, by staff reporter Charles Winokoor, begins this way:
The smell that has elicited complaints from residents living near the city’s landfill should soon be a thing of the past, representatives of a methane gas conversion firm told city councilors Tuesday night. 
“It concerns us as well. We want to fix this,” said Anthony Falbo, senior vice president of operations for Fortistar Methane Group. 
Fortistar has a contract with Waste Management, which manages the city’s landfill. 
Falbo said he and his staff weren’t aware of a growing odor problem until recently, when City Council solid waste committee chairman Daniel Barbour publicly raised the issue.
Fortistar says it will soon add more methane gas extraction wells to those already on site. Yet reading the entire story, it isn’t clear whether Fortistar’s Mr. Falbo or Taunton councilman Barbour are clear on the concept: do they blame the odor on methane or do they just assume that collecting more gas of all types will eliminate the odor problem?

Should the new methane extractors not solve the problem, it’s a question that may come back to haunt the town and its vendors. Clarity now could head of a PR kerfuffle later.

Related: My Green and Stinky posts document the unwillingness of municipal composting operators to come clean about the inherent stinkiness of their facilities. Communities should be better informed and more skeptical about airy claims of odorlessness by all waste management vendors.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Sissel Tolaas Fools Some of the People All the Time

“. . . so we made teas from human body sweat, and it got a lot of attention.”

Look at me! Look at me! Hey, look at me!

Uh, Sissel, you’re not half as transgressive as this guy.

Online mag Nowness calls her a “cross-disciplinary sensory connoisseur,” “researcher,” and “scent curator.”

I’m going to curate a collection of scent curators.

I’m calling it “Smelling the Smellers of Smells.”

It’s a meta thang.

Conceptual art, bro.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Smartphones with a Sense of Smell?

That’s the claim advanced in a Slate piece about Sam Khamis and his Vinod Khosla-funded startup called Adamant Technologies, in Redwood City, California. The story, by Will Oremus, is rather breathless:
an array of sensors that together could potentially detect anything from halitosis to blood glucose levels to an impending electrical fire. The goal: a device that hooks up to your smartphone, turning it into a personal health monitor. [snip] At first, these apps would require a plug-in device that might cost on the order of $100. But Khamis told me his long-term goal is bigger: in short, a digitized, superhuman sense of smell that could someday be integrated into the phone itself.
Khamis got his PhD in experimental physics at Penn, where he discovered new ways to manufacture carbon nanotubes. Along with some researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, he found a way to couple olfactory receptor proteins to carbon nanotube transistors. Gas phase odor molecules activate the receptors, and the transistors signal the event to the attached circuitry. Thus, a biological detector is, quite literally, wired into an electronic nose/brain. It’s cool, but not unprecedented, technology.

Adamant Technologies, with series A funding to the tune of $2.5 million, is so far a rudimentary web page. Although the Slate piece doesn’t say so directly, the underlying technology may be the receptor-transistor setup, now the subject of a U.S. patent application by Khamis and Paul Rhodes.

I would love to see this technology succeed. Do I think it will? Not soon. As I pointed out in What the Nose Knows, “The usefulness of an e-nose depends on its software as much as its sensors.” Detecting the different molecules found in bad breath is one thing; recognizing that pattern as bad breath is another and it requires big-time statistical processing and adaptive algorithms. Solving the cocktail party problem (tracking a target signal against a noisy background) is still another hurdle. When it comes to e-noses, the math is harder than the biophysics.

But suppose Khamis’s dream comes true and we each have an e-nose embedded in our smart phone. Then what?
It’s January 2017, and you’re riding a crowded elevator to work. An SBD occurs. The odor app on someone’s iPhone 8 says, “Hey, who cut the cheese?” Everyone stares at the doors. Awkward silence. 
After lunch there’s a ruckus. The chick from Accounts Payable is in tears and the HR lady is walking her out of the office. The screen on the HR lady’s iPhone is flashing “Alcohol Violation: Appletini.” 
You go the doctor about a sore knee, but first you have to breathe onto his iPhone as part of the mandatory Obamacare protocol. It detects the Marlboro you sneaked three days ago and your health insurance premium automatically goes up 20%. 
You come home late one night and your girlfriend waves her iPhone around your neck. It registers the new Lady Gaga fragrance. Your girlfriend doesn’t own the new Lady Gaga fragrance. You sleep on the couch. 
You dream about the old days, when smell was still the mysterious sense.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

And the Crowd Goes Wild

Photo by Charlotte Squire

A fun local tradition in New Zealand:
The annual Collingwood Raft Race was taking place, and a large crowd gathered on the bridge to throw a fuming concoction of rotten whey and old squid at the competitors as they floated beneath the bridge towards the “finish line” at the Collingwood Motor Camp.
Also tossed onto the rafters: “buckets of liquid pig manure and buckets of rotten milk.” This seems to have been a departure from “the traditional bombardment of old eggs and flour bombs.”

Good times.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Elephant Walks into a Smell Lab . . .

Professor Matthias Laska has made a big name for himself in the tiny world of comparative olfactory psychophysics. He has done this by measuring the olfactory ability of all sorts of non-human species, including mice, honey bees, squirrel monkeys, pigtail macaques, spider monkeys and South African fur seals. His specialty is designing behavioral tests in which the animals can demonstrate their olfactory talents, such as ability to discriminate between test odors or to detect very low concentrations of a single smell.

By testing human volunteers in similar ways, Laska is able to quantitatively rank our skills against those of other species. I relied on his work when, in What the Nose Knows, I argued against the old Greco-Freudian myth that humans have a relatively poor sense of smell. Laska’s work shows humans to be extremely competitive with other mammals.

Laska has recently turned his attention to elephants. How do you test an elephant’s sense of smell? [Very carefully.—Ed.] Laska and his colleagues use a “food-rewarded two-choice instrumental conditioning paradigm.” For those of you who want to try this at home, here’s how. The elephants were trained, upon verbal command,
to sniff at 2 odor sampling ports and then to indicate which of them held the rewarded odor stimulus by placing the tip of their trunk onto a defined position above the corresponding odor port.
Easy peasy. Correct choices are rewarded with a carrot.

In a newly published paper, Laska et al., take an extensive look at the Asian elephant’s ability to discriminate among odorants with similar molecular structure. Laska’s standard tactic is to test “homologous series” of simple alcohols, aldehydes, ketones, and carboxylic acids, i.e., he compares molecules of a given carbon chain length but with different functional groups. He also tests the discriminability of enantiomeric odor pairs, e.g., (-)-carvone and (+)-carvone. These are mirror image versions of the same molecular structure and often have different odor character.

The new results are easily summarized: elephants successfully discriminated all the odor pairs, both the homologous series and the enantiomers. Compared to other species tested similarly by Laska,
the Asian elephants performed at least as well as mice and clearly better than human subjects, squirrel monkeys, pigtail macaques, South African fur seals, and honeybees.
So there! Laska et al. mention some unpublished results showing that elephants are not particularly good at telling apart different concentrations of the same odor. Still, this is a pretty impressive performance.

The study discussed here is “Olfactory discrimination ability of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) for structurally related odorants,” by Alisa Rizvanovic, Mats Amundin, and Matthias Laska, published online in Chemical Senses, December 16, 2012.

UPDATE January 5, 2013
Professor Laska emailed me regarding elephant’s inability to distinguish different concentrations of the same odor. Apparently, once an elephant figures out that odor X is rewarded he has trouble learning in another test that a different concentration of X is not rewarded. This problem also occurs with most of the other species Laska has studied. It makes sense: in nature the reward value of a particular smell is unlikely to vary with its concentration.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Perfume Platitudes: When Smellebrities Speak

Crash Davis: It’s time to work on your interviews.

Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh: My interviews? What do I gotta do?

Davis: You’re gonna have to learn your clichés. You’re gonna have to study them, you’re gonna have to know them. They’re your friends. Write this down: “We gotta play it one day at a time.”

LaLoosh: Got to play . . . It’s pretty boring.

Davis: ‘Course it’s boring, that’s the point. Write it down.

LaLoosh: One . . . day . . . at a . . . time.

Davis: “I’m just happy to be here. Hope I can help the ball club.” I know, write it down. “I just wanna give it my best shot, and the good Lord willing, things will work out.

Nicole Richie 2012
“This scent is something that I am truly proud of and something that I myself love to wear. I was very closely involved in the creation of Nicole and took a hands-on approach with its development, helping with everything from the notes that are featured to the packaging and the products’ design,” Nicole revealed.

Peter Andre 2010
“I will be traveling around the country doing perfume signings and meeting my fans. I can’t wait to hear what they think. I hope people enjoy this fragrance as much as I enjoyed developing it for them.”

Heidi Klum 2011
“Working for a long time on developing a signature scent and watching it finally come to life is so exciting,” Klum said in a statement. “I never thought my nose would recover from sniffing so many scent combinations but it is all worth it.”

Jordin Sparks 2010
[Jordin] Sparks, an avid fan of fragrances, was highly involved in the development of her signature scent to ensure that it would be unique and represent her young and vibrant personality and embrace her creative force.

Kate Moss 2010
While some celebrities might simply lend their name to signature fragrances, Kate Moss was involved in every process of the development of her latest scent - Vintage Muse - as these exclusive pics illustrate. 
“Being a part of the creative process inspired me to develop Vintage Muse, a gorgeously chic, refined fragrance that lifts and inspires.”

Taylor Swift 2011
Taylor Swift has released a new video showing her behind the scenes involvement during the creation of her first fragrance, Wonderstruck. 
Swift got her hands (and her nose) dirty by being so intimately involved in the process, as the video shows her sniffing samples and offering her approval, simply by the look on her face. You can tell which notes she likes and dislikes via her facial expressions after she takes a whiff. Swift was clearly engaged by the process of creating her own perfume.

“We just gotta smell it one blotter at a time.”