Saturday, May 3, 2008

Impossible smells exhibition opens

The world's first exhibition of 'extinct and impossible' smells is under way, from the metallic fallout of the first atomic bomb to the aroma of cloves and oranges from first aid kit of a medieval plague doctor.

The acrid reek of a blazing meteor impact, the sweaty bouquet of a space station, the hothouse aroma of a Victorian greenhouse are also there for the smelling at the Reg Vardy Gallery, University of Sunderland.

Among the stranger smells at the exhibition is the "surface of the sun"
One of the smells at the exhibition is the 'surface of the sun'

The aromatic exhibition has drawn on the efforts of perfumers, chemists, botanists and a Nasa scientist. "What we have created here is a world first, a scientific flight of fancy made up of exotic and strange scents," says Robert Blackson of the University of Sunderland, mastermind behind the endeavour.

"One person will love a smell when their friend will hate it," says Blackson. "There are no good or bad smells."

One extraordinary fragrance is the aftermath of the first atomic bomb, dropped on Japan on August 6, 1945. "The Hiroshima smell is quick and pungent, very metallic," says Blackson.

There is also the smell of Cleopatra's hair, based on an incense that was popular among ancient Egyptians containing raisins, an evergreen called Cassia, and wine.

The Soviet Mir space station, which burnt up in the atmosphere in 2001, smells of formaldehyde, charred material (the space station caught fire) and a strong pong of astronaut BO.

Among the stranger smells is the "surface of the sun."

"It is hard to sum up. It is an atmospheric smell, like walking into a room when the sun has been pouring in," says Blackson. "It gives a freshness, a sun kissed feel with a bit of metal. If you can say something smells hot, this is it."

"There's also some extinct flowers," adds Blackson. "Some have been gone for hundreds of years, whilst others have only been extinct for the last 30, due to things like deforestation."

These scents were devised by James Wong, a botanist at Botanic Gardens Conservation International. "Resurrecting the scent of an extinct plant may seem like something straight out of 'Jurassic Park', but the dynamics of the operation are relatively simple, " he says.

"Our team of botanists trawled through an extensive list of extinct flowers and plants to identify entries that were closely related to existing scented species. Then combining historical reports of how these extinct plants smelt, with the fragrance of their living relatives, we can hazard an extremely good guess at what their aroma was like."

"For example, when you see a very close relative of Sandalwood on the list it is very likely that this would have had a strong sandalwood-like odour." And, indeed, the extinct Juan Fernandez Sandalwood from Chile was a popular incense about the turn of the 20th century said to smell like the common Indian Sandalwood, only a little sweeter.

An 'extinct bouquet' of plants includes the Chilean Sandalwood tree, which was driven to extinction in 1908 due to over exploitation of its fragrant wood, and the grassy, herbal smell of Ilex gardneriana holly that has been wiped out since 1997.

Smell is an extremely evocative sense. Perhaps the best known fictional example of its power is in Proust's autobiographical novel, A La Recherche du Temps Perdu. The key scene in the French masterpiece describes how the taste and smell of a madeleine - a tea cake - dipped in the tea enabled the narrator to conjure up memories of his childhood in Combray, where he had first been given the treat by his aunt.

Original here

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