Sniffing Out the Vast World of Smell

Sara Harrison in Undark:

THERE’S A WEALTH OF information floating in the air, though we rarely take the time to notice. Olfaction, or the ability to smell, may be the least appreciated of the five senses. A 2011 poll by the marketing firm McCann Worldgroup, for instance, found that 53 percent of young people would prefer to give up their sense of smell than to give up their use of technology.

But that was before the Covid-19 pandemic suddenly made us acutely aware of the dangers in the air around us: the droplets expelled from unmasked mouths and noses, the potentially infectious soup of molecules in unventilated, indoor spaces. And before anosmia, or the loss of smell, emerged as one of the most common Covid-19 symptoms. So perhaps it’s time we pay closer attention to what else is in the air.

As Harold McGee shows in “Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells,” olfaction is a fascinating landscape that adds much to our sensory experience of the world, if only we would breathe a bit deeper. He devotes some 600 pages to the vast and exciting “osmocosm,” his term for the odors that swirl around us every day, even if we don’t notice them.

More here.