What a Smell Looks Like

June 20 18:33 2016 Print This Article

(Scientific American) – A team studies humans’ use of smell to navigate surroundings, with hopes of robot applications.

Boulder smells of peppermint…and crisp snow. The frozen water smells pure, as if still trapped in the clouds hanging just overhead. The sun glints off the Rocky Mountains, their iron musk mixes with mountain pine. Before crossing the road to enter the University of Colorado Boulder, a truck dashes by, muffling these scents with sulfuric exhaust.

As I approach, John Crimaldi, a fluid mechanist, pushes open an eastern door, so he can show me what these smells look like.

The halls of the CU Engineering Center are wide and tall, designed so scientists can construct mechanical goliaths. We walk into Crimaldi’s shop to view his team’s massive creation: a 50-foot-long tank with lavender railings. As I glance at the water, I half expect salmon or tiny sharks to dart through the 5,000 gallons of water.

Suddenly, the overhead lights switch off, and a maze of high-powered lasers appear underneath the flume. A sheet of light slices upwards, and the middle of the tank explodes in what looks like green flames. This fire swirls in slow motion. One spot bulges like a kid pressing a thumb through Play-doh. Other parts stretch, tugged by invisible strings.

This underwater blaze is an odor, or at least what an odor looks like when drifting through space.

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