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One scientist is archiving the world through a library of smells

Photo: Sissel Tolaas (Great Big Story/YouTube)

Though it’s an oft-repeated fact that smell is the sense most strongly tied to memory, generally speaking, that’s not something we take advantage of too often. Our understanding of other places and times is more often than not limited to sight and sound (i.e., photos and videos) when we’ve got three other perfectly good senses going mostly unused. But one woman wants to change that. Sissel Tolaas is a Norwegian scientist and smell expert—or, as she calls herself, a “professional in-betweener”—who works to capture and recreate the smells of everything from cities to neighborhoods to buildings to historical eras. In this new video, the YouTube channel Great Big Story offers a fascinating glimpse into Tolaas’ unusual line of work.

To create her “smell scenarios,” Tolaas collects and analyzes smell molecules emitting from particular sources. Using that analytical data, she can reproduce specific smells using the around 4,000 chemical compounds she has in her lab. The smells glimpsed in this video include “Copenhagen,” “Central Park,” “tank,” and “Russian toilets.” Right now Tolaas is mostly focused on collecting the smells, but there are a ton of potential applications for them. As Tolaas puts it, “The purpose can be tolerance, education, navigation [or] to memorize. The list is endless.” Just think: Perhaps one day home Smell-O-Vision will really allow us to appreciate the true horrors of Westeros.


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