Thursday, February 13, 2020

Roses Are Made

This year, if you get a picture of a rose instead of an actual rose, keep the following in mind: Roses that make a good picture don't smell like much, so you're not missing anything!

Roses are popular, and they have been cultivated over centuries to have all kinds of different features. Some are chosen to smell good, and some to look good. That usually means the roses that look good do not smell good. (Some varieties are simply more durable; when you're shipping those flowers all over the world, durability is a desired trait.)

And wouldn't you know it; people tend to like the kind that look good more than the latter. This means most of our roses these days have lost their multisensory seduction.

This is great example of natural selection at its most sophisticated –in the domain of the anthroposphere. It is true that humans are selecting the flowers they want to propagate, and that doesn't sound like nature at the wheel.

But these humans impose their artificial selection pressures only in response to market forces, or customer demand, or fashion, or whatever you want to call it. And as any fashion designer will tell you, there is not much reasoning behind the preferences of populations. Individuals perhaps, but populations not so much.

In a game of complexity theory, every individual makes decisions that are a result of every other individual. The resulting decisions then determine the kinds of flowers selected. Channeling Dawkins' Memetics, the scentless rose is an extended phenotype of our collective selection process. Is that natural or artificial?

Susan Milius for Science News, 2018

O. Raymond et al. The Rosa genome provides new insights into the domestication of modern roses. Nature Genetics. Published online April 30, 2018. doi:10.1038/s41588-018-0110-3.

Mental Floss, 2018

Richard Dawkins, 1982

Post Script:
Favorite "Rose" perfume:

Friday, February 7, 2020

When Do Bad Smells Become Dangerous

You’re looking at a mountain of garbage in India which is slated to become higher than the Taj Mahal.

Dec 2019,

Before I say anything about bad smells in New Jersey, I should first link you to the absolutely most popular post on this blog, which provides an olfactory tour of the infamous New Jersey Turnpike.

Now onto more current matters. There's a landfill in New Jersey that's been causing problems for its neighboring residents. Actually, there's lots of landfills in NJ, and lots of them cause problems for nearby residents. (See an older post about Tinton Falls and the Smell Hotline.)

The town of Kearny sued the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority (NJSEA) last year over health concerns from too much hydrogen sulfide gas. The gas smells like rotten eggs and comes from decaying sheetrock (gypsum board) in the landfill. It was found at levels that exceed state health guidelines, so the town sued, and now the case has been settled: The resolution will permanently close the landfill, cap it, and transform it into a passive recreational space with public access to a nearby marsh.

I've brought this up as an opportunity to talk about smells vs health: Lots of things that smell are bad are also bad for us, but not always, and it's complicated.

Carbon monoxide is lethal and odorless. Isovaleric acid smells like rotten foot fungus and vomit, but it's not going to kill you. The source of the isovaleric acid, however, that might be a bacterial health concern. The "rotten eggs" emanating from your local landfill? Let's take a look at this chart, which I happen to have lying around.

You can detect hydrogen sulfide (H2S) at 0.13 parts per million (ppm). At that level, you won't get immediate effects. But if you're exposed to that level every day, you may get health effects, which explains why the "EPA safe exposure limit" is decimal points lower than that.

But it gets better. At some point, once the H2S reachers 100 ppm, you can no longer smell it. Also around this point, at 500 ppm, it can knock you off your feet. A little higher, at 1,000 ppm, and you might never get back up.

The takeaway from this chart is only to say that you can't rely on smell alone to tell you whether something is safe or not.

Is a smelly landfill next to my house safe? Probably not; but probably not for the reasons of why it smells. Granted, if it's got that much sheetrock that it's pumping 0.13 ppm into the window of your bedroom, then it's a problem.

But don't forget that landfills pose other health concerns besides the gases they emit -- the effluence that slides its way out the bottom of a mountain of trash will be sure to have something of concern in it. Where does that go? Back into your drinking water? Does it wash ashore the floodprone playground where your kids play? Those pollutants you might not smell, but that doesn't make them any less of a problem.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

The Designer's Coffeetable

I am very excited to announce a new book about scent that comes out any day now.

It's called The Essence: Discovering the World of Scent, Perfume & Fragrance, and it's being published by Die Gestalten Verlag, who is known for their 600 books on art, architecture, design, photography and typography.

The book is a compendium of fragrance and includes some of the most provocative and important people in the world of smell. It's filled with interviews, stories, essays and data candy about the most understudied of senses. I was lucky enough to contribute a couple essays on the neuromechanics of smell and the smell of the human body. 

Having spent the majority of my career instructing on the principles and elements of visual design, I must say, this book is a visual powerhouse. I would read it just for the sake of looking at the typography, those curves.

Gestalten is the only publisher where all the editors are professional designers. And it definitely shows. From the photographs to the layout to that airtight, neo-Bauhaus, Leger-esque cover, this whole book is a barbituate-drip to the visiopathic ocd cultural consumer. 

What's even better -- it's not about visual design at all; it's about the wide-open world of olfactory indulgence!

I'll let the press department take over from here:

About the Book
The empire of scent: explore the realm of perfumes, smells, and aromatic incense to reveal the enduring allure of fragrance. Scent is a hugely under-studied sense, compared with the other senses, both neurologically and psychologically.

Scents are linked with our most cherished memories of life without the ability to smell is unimaginable. The Essence: Discovering the World of Scent, Perfume & Fragrance contains meticulous research on the mystery of scents, profiles of those pushing the envelope of science and fantasy, and the history of a royal pursuit that have shaped the perfume industry into what it is today. From the lavender fields of Provence and the laboratories where perfumes are created, to incense producers in India.

Meet the trailblazers shaping the future of perfumery as The Essence explores the vital role that technology and scented products will play in the 21st century. A study in 2014 by researchers at the University of Lyon found that aging human stress levels were reduced and moods improved by manipulating the environment with a pleasant odor. There will be a revolution in the health and wellness industries, where a renewed focus on the conscious and subconscious power of scent has gained traction in recent years.
According to Olivia Jezler, the founder of design and fragrance innovation consultancy, Future of Smell, "Scents will be used to enhance cognition, to retain and recall information and even to control the way we feel and experience the world."
What to Expect
All you wish and need to know about the perfume and fragrance industry. Where are the scents from? Why are they so important for us? Who are they designed for and by whom? Investigates fragrance families, raw materials from different regions of the world, the chemistry of smelling, the interaction between smelling and memory.

Featuring designers, start-ups, creative artisans, and manufactories, from young independent perfumers experimenting with genuinely natural fragrances to brands developing artificial scents for their products.

Including a guide to the best perfume meccas worldwide. With essays, interviews, stories, infographics and stunning photography.
“Smell is the deepest sense, it is rooted in our limbic system. It is the old, animal part of our brain, the center where emotions rise and where memories are located."
-Wolfgang Georgsdorf, artist and founder of the Osmodrama festival in Berlin
The Essence: Discovering the World of Scent, Perfume & Fragrance, edited by Robert Klanten, founder and CEO of gestalten as well as Carla Seipp, fragrance writer, is the first publication by gestalten recognizing the world of scent and the figures who shape the field.

Find the book here on gestalten’s page, under New Releases.