Thursday, April 19, 2018

Organic Molecules in Space

Jan 2018,

New data from the National Science Foundation's Green Bank Telescope (GBT) show, for the first time, the convincing radio fingerprints of a close cousin and chemical precursor to PAHs, the molecule benzonitrile (C6H5CN). This detection may finally provide the "smoking gun" that PAHs are indeed spread throughout interstellar space and account for the mysterious infrared light astronomers had been observing.

Limbic Signal is not exactly the venue for space talk, but when the talk is about things aromatic, it comes up on our radar. Just taking a moment here to clarify the semantics.

"Aromatic" doesn't necessarily refer to aroma, but an entire group of chemicals that form a ring of interconnected carbon atoms studded with hydrogen atoms on the outside. The first of these carbon ring molecules to be discovered was very distinctively pleasant-smelling, and so the following discoveries made of similarly formed molecules were also called aromatic molecules.

The interesting part of the story is that these are organic molecules, containing so much of the carbon that is an integral part of organic life. Therefore there is a equanimity between the words aromatic and organic, as far as chemistry is concerned... The ultimate implication here is that outer space has within its cold, lifeless vacuum a very regular dispersion of very complex molecules that make up the building blocks of life. In other words, as we learn more and more about the world outside of our planet, the more we realize it is not as lifeless as we thought.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

All Mixed Up

Aug 2017,

First of all - odor-color synaesthesia.

Maybe you've heard of people who hear colors, or see letters as being colored, or some other mismatched combination of the senses. That's synaesthesia. But seeing odors as colors (or more generally, as "visual experiences") is definitely a rare kind.

This special neural tweak, however, makes people better at naming odors - something humans are plain bad at. (There's stories of people who eat peanut butter sandwiches every day of their life being given peanut butter in a smell test, and they can't identify it.)

Synaesthetes were tested by olfactory language expert Asifa Majid and colleague Laura Speed to see if they were better at odor recognition, and it turns out they were. 

Post Script

Hidden Scents was in fact supposed to be named Hidden Sense, but alas, I didn't want to get things confused with this interesting work:

The Hidden Sense: Synaesthasia in Art and Science, by Cretian van Campen, MIT Press 2007.