Anyone recalls that Futurama episode where Professor Farnsworth builds a Smell-O-Scope to search the galaxy and Jupiter smells like strawberries? Turns out it’s not such a crazy idea. In fact, scientists from the Max Plank Institute used the IRAM radio telescope in Spain to study a dust cloud near the center of the galaxy and, guess what? it smells like raspberries … and rum. Yummy! I knew I liked astronomy for a reason.
Apparently, the chemicals they found in those clouds include ethyl formate, the dominant flavor in raspberries and a key one in rum, although there are other molecules that might mess up with the smell.
Of course, scientists do not actually smell those clouds: they identify the chemicals and map them into familiar earth compounds just to explain what they’ve found. One would think — booo-riiing. But we could actually very well build a smell-o-scope under these premises.
In 1932 Huxley’s book Brave New World, he proposed full sensory movies called “feelies”. The key idea is that smells are due to volatile molecules called odorants that constantly evaporate and reach our olfactory receptors. In the early 1950s, Hans Laube actually created the Smell-O-Vision, by pumping into tiny tubes spread around a theater a combination of 30 different smells including flowers, garlic, smoke, oranges, etc. The process had to be steadily controlled to avoid residual smells and the concept did not catch.
Nevertheless, half a century later, there is still people working on smell interfaces, like Meta Cookie or the Smelling screen. The idea is the same (odorant containers released in a sequence) but systems are more portable. So, in theory, if we identify some molecules in a far away galaxy, we can release LOCALLY the smell that they are supposed to yield straight to the observer’s nose.
Now, on a smaller scale, believe it or not, Denver cops have been using what they call Nasal Ranger Field Olfactometer since they legalized marijuana to enforce the so called “odor-ordinance”. In this case, the device indeed enhances smells so they can be detected at 500:1 ratio. This works as long as one is within the smell source range, so no raspberries for us – duh
Anyway, all in all, if one combines whatever the telescope finds with a smell interface … duh, Smell-O-Scope, everyone. If it’s in Futurama, it’s technically sound 🙂