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“Smellscape” Artist Attempts to Capture the Unique Scent of a City

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Of the five primary senses, smell might be the most underappreciated. But that's not the case with scent-obsessed artist and researcher Sissel Tolaas. She specializes in the practice of cataloguing and replicating the world’s smells, essentially putting experiences in a bottle so they can be uncorked later, sort of like an olfactory Willy Wonka. For over a decade now, CityLab reports, Tolaas and her nose have traveled to 35 cities and counting, documenting not the sights and sounds, but the scents of each location.

Tolaas and other smell-obsessed researchers from across disciplines work out of a unique laboratory, called the Re_Search Lab, in Berlin. Inside are 6,763 distinctive smells contained in identical aluminum boxes, each of which emits “something,” a suitably vague term to cover all manner of smells.

The extensive archive is home base, but Tolaas goes far and wide to collect its contents, from Mexico City to Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas. The Grand Arts council invited her to make a “smellscape” of Missouri’s biggest city and its similarly named neighbor. After some firsthand research—which, yes, involved sticking her nose into plenty of unusual places—Tolaas organized “a smell scavenger hunt of sorts,” during which curious locals could scratch and sniff cards marked “Municipal Court” or “Public Levee Space at Kaw Point” imbued with the carefully recreated scent of those locations. Not all the city smells are ones the visitors might choose to inhale on a normal basis (refer to Tolaas’s exhibit in Paris, which heavily featured whiffs of ashtrays and slaughterhouses), but they’re all as much a part of the city as its very streets and storefronts.

When scent-mapping a new city, Tolaas doesn’t go it alone. She calls on volunteers to help her sniff around. In a recent collaboration with Harvard University, local student volunteers in Shanghai helped her identify 500 unique scents that comprised the city—mostly food, but also odors from nature, street traffic, and even the people themselves. Tolaas is rigorous in her methods, making multiple passes of the same area at different times of day to ensure that the smells she’s identifying are truly a constant presence. She’s convinced that with such attention to detail, a person should be able to navigate a neighborhood blindly, with only their nose to guide them.

There’s a fascinating science behind all this smell curation, made possible by the Re_Search Lab’s close partnership with International Flavors and Fragrances, commercial creator of tastes and scents, who provide Tolaas with her equipment. Headspace technology allows Tolaas to capture the odor molecules of whatever objects she’s brought back to the lab, which she then works to recreate with synthetic compounds. The interdisciplinary nature of Tolaas’s work makes sense considering her background. She was raised and educated in Iceland, Norway, Poland, and Russia, is fluent in nine languages, and trained in both chemistry and the arts. Tolaas thrives in the space she has created for herself between art and science

Having worked so long with smells, Tolaas no longer judges them to be good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, the way we quotidian sniffers do. She shuns any “hierarchy” of smells, telling CityLab that “every smell has the potential of being interesting.” Anecdotally considering the way most cities smell on an average day, it’s probably best to keep an open mind along with those open nostrils.

[h/t CityLab]

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Most People Consistently Visit 25 Different Places in Their Daily Lives
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We move around a lot less during our daily lives than you might expect. Based on data from 40,000 people, a new study on human mobility finds that we tend to frequent only 25 places at any given time in our lives.

In the study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, researchers from City, University of London, the Technical University of Denmark, and Sony Mobile Communications found that people tend to have a maximum number of 25 places that they visit regularly, and if they begin frequenting a new place, they probably stop going to another, keeping their total number of haunts constant.

The researchers used several different datasets to understand how people move through their lives, including studies with college students and university employees, data from a smartphone activity tracker called Lifelog, and a Nokia research project that tracked the behavior of a group of cell phone users living near Lake Geneva in Switzerland between 2009 and 2011.

They found that people constantly face trade-offs between the curiosity that drives us to check out new places and the laziness and comfort that keeps us going back to our regular haunts. As a result, the number of locations we tend to visit stays relatively steady. People “continually explore new places yet they are loyal to a limited number of familiar ones,” the authors write.

Though that number may sound a little low to anyone with wanderlust, it makes sense. People don’t have infinite time or resources. Even the number of friends we’re capable of keeping up with is rather limited—anthropologist Robin Dunbar famously hypothesizes that humans can only sustain around 150 friendships at a time, and only five of those friends will be truly close ones. And if that’s our upper limit for connections we can technically maintain without ever leaving our computers, it makes sense that we would be able to sustain even fewer connections to places, which by nature require some amount of travel. If you find a new restaurant and become a regular, it’s probably at the expense of another restaurant you used to visit all the time.

However, the study found that the number of places you frequent can’t necessarily be explained only by the amount of free time you have. The researchers argue that “the fixed capacity is an inherent property of human behavior.” The 25-place rule held even if they adjusted for the time people spent at each location. They also found that the more social a person was, the more places they visited.

The researchers hope to continue their work by looking at connections between mobility and Dunbar’s work on social ties, figuring out how exactly your social life plays into how you move around the world.

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Interactive Map Shows Where Your House Would Have Been 750 Million Years Ago
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Your neighborhood traveled a long way over several hundred million years to reach the spot it occupies today. To trace that journey over the ages, check out Ancient Earth, an interactive digital map spotted by Co.Design.

Ancient Earth, a collaboration between engineer and Google alum Ian Webster and Paleomap Project creator C.R. Scotese, contains geographical information for the past 750 million years. Start at the beginning and you'll see unrecognizable blobs of land. As you progress through the ages, the land mass Pangaea gradually breaks apart to form the world map we're all familiar with.

To make the transition even more personal, you can enter your street address to see where it would have been located in each period. Five hundred million years ago, for example, New York City was a small island in the southern hemisphere isolated from any major land mass. Around the same time, London was still a part of Pangaea, and it was practically on top of the South Pole. You can use the arrows on your keyboard to flip through the eras or jump from event to event, like the first appearance of multicellular life or the dinosaur extinction.

As you can see from the visualization, Pangaea didn't break into the seven continents seamlessly. Many of the long-gone continents that formed in the process even have names.

[h/t Co.Design]

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