Thursday, October 7, 2010

Mapping Scentscapes: How to Do it

"Perhaps the earliest attempt to make an urban smell map dates back to Paris in the 1790s, when new ideas about both political equality and hygiene combined to send physician Jean-Noël Hallé on a six-mile odor-recording expedition along the banks of the Seine. His map-making technology consisted of nothing more than a notebook and pencil -- and, of course, his nose."

Sissel Tolaas of course doesn't merely rely on antiquated methods. In her quest to olfactorily map urban landscapes (has already mapped Paris, New York City and Mexico City and is currently working on Kansas City). Tolaas however uses Living Flower Technology in situ: Dr. Braja Mookherjee, a scientist at IFF, one of the world's largest fragrance and flavor companies. Mookherjee was obsessed with capturing the exact odor you experience when you put your nose up to, say, a living jasmine flower, rather than relying on an extract, or "absolute," as it's called in the perfumery business. In a paper (pdf) published in 1990 -- the same year IFF trademarked Mookherjee's discovery as "IFF Living Flower Technology" -- Mookherjee described his dissatisfaction with natural oils and extracts"

Writer Nicola Twilley writes in an extensive (and informative) article in the Atlantic: "My scratch-and-sniff maps show how New Yorkers' smell, rather than what. To make them, I extrapolated data from the as-yet-unpublished results of an extensive study that tested the responses of four hundred New Yorkers to sixty-six different smells over a two-year period from March 2005. The experiment was conducted by Andreas Keller and Leslie B. Vosshall at the Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior, The Rockefeller University. "Our main goal was to try to find the difference between different variants in the DNA and different ways that people rank the smells on a seven-point scale from extremely unpleasant to extremely pleasant," Keller said. "We collected our subjects' demographic information just to control for those types of influences."
Nonetheless, that demographic information revealed some fascinating and significant differences in smell perception between men and women, young and old, and different ethnicities. For my map, I chose twelve of Vosshall and Keller's most interesting test smells, from complex natural extracts such as nutmeg and vanilla to single-note synthetic molecules such as octyl acetate, which is the basis for many artificial orange flavors as well as a key ingredient in Chanel No.5."

Read more on how to map a city scent-wise following the link above.

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