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In a not-too-distant future, we might just be able to travel back in time – via smell.
That’s especially odd when you consider that, so far, we’ve pretty much ignored odour when recording our history. While we can gawk at centuries-old stuff in museums or listen to tunes written lifetimes ago, we can only guess at what smells might have tantalised or repulsed our predecessors’ nostrils. They’re all but lost, because no one’s ever worked out how to bottle them up so future generations can take a whiff.
Scientists like Cecilia Bembibre are on a mission to change that. The University College London doctoral candidate considers herself a smell detective of sorts, and her tools of the trade include a high-tech “electronic nose” and a sniffing port that she jams her own nostrils into while blindfolded.
For the past year, Bembibre’s been using these gadgets to painstakingly catalogue six smells of history – the start of what she hopes will one day became a vast archive of odours that could be recreated for future noses. “The hundreds of smells we perceive every day have a huge impact on who we are and how we think,” she says. “I would like for smell to be part of our education.”
It’s also a great excuse to hang around a fancy 365-room country house – one of the largest in England. Located in Kent, south-east of London, Knole House was built in the 15th century and then, in 1603, passed through royal hands to the Sackville family, who’ve inhabited the place and its enormous 1000- acre medieval deer park ever since. “Many of the family members have been writers, or associated with writers,” Bembibre says. “So there’s a lot of literature and research where the house’s smells are mentioned.”
This was a starting point for her to whittle down to six key odours: iconic scents that seemed to tell a story of a moment in time. Take, for instance, a pair of leather gloves worn by the Duke of Dorset for the coronation of King George IV in 1821. Had they once been delicately scented, as was the custom for well-born people at the time? “They might not have been – we don’t know – but it’s a nice question to put to a historic object,” Bembibre says. Other whiffs on her list include an old book, furniture wax, an old record, a potpourri recipe created especially for Knole House in the 1750s and, most challenging of all, the overall ambient smell of the house’s opulent Venetian Ambassador’s Bedroom and its collection of swanky tapestries.
Like any good detective, Bembibre begins by dusting for fingerprints, or the smell equivalent, at least – traces of gases in the air. She leaves a very fine fibre in contact with the object (or inside a room) for anywhere from one hour to one month, which soaks up volatile organic compound samples: the chemical compounds responsible for smell.
After this “solid phase microextraction” process is complete, Bembibre heads back to her London laboratory to fire up her electronic nose, better known to scientists as a gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer. It analyses the individual chemical compounds within each odour, breaking them down into a visual graph of peaks and troughs that can be cross-checked against a chemical database to determine exactly what makes up each smell. “That’s half of the documentation of a smell. But until someone smells it, we don’t have the full picture,” Bembibre explains.
This is where her own senses comes into play. Every now and then, Bembibre heads to the Odournet laboratory in Barcelona, where she stuffs her nose inside a specialised sniffing port capable of belching out each individual compound that makes up a single odour. The idea is to characterise these smells in a human way, using everyday descriptors and ratings around pleasantness and intensity. The reality is 15 disorientating minutes of being hit with a cacophony of pongs.
“It’s very overwhelming, because you are blindfolded with your nose inside this machine, you don’t know what’s coming, and then you smell violets. And it’s so vivid. Then you smell rubbish. Then wet soil after the rain. Then, maybe, gasoline. One after the other, and your brain really struggles to make sense of them,” Bembibre says. “Identifying is not the problem, because you know immediately what you’re smelling. But it’s very di cult to verbalise that in a way that can be understood by others. Very often you say, ‘This smells exactly like my dad’s car.’ But that’s not useful to anyone. It’s very hard to produce objective descriptions because smell is so interlinked with our personal memory and emotions.”
This connection is exactly why Bembibre is so obsessed with recording such descriptions. Take, for example, a library filled with old books. Their distinctive smell has captured our imagination, practically becoming the smell of knowledge. But what if books cease to exist in the future? Preserving their delightfully musty aroma alone probably wouldn’t succeed; it’d need some kind of context, something to explain to future sniffers just what books were and why we loved their odour so much.
“We don’t want to just preserve the smell in a lab, we want to preserve the sensory experience. Our sensibilities change so much. Fifty years ago some people found cigarette smoke pleasant. This has changed a lot with the shift in legislation, and this is within our lifetime. Imagine what 100 years could do.” The key to successfully creating an archive of historic smells seems to lie in combining well-established olfactory science with storytelling, Bembibre says, which hasn’t ever really been done before.
It makes sense that Bembibre’s the woman to attempt it, given her background as a journalist and her childhood fascination with smell. “I grew up between Buenos Aires and a really rural environment in Argentina, so I was exposed to completely different smellscapes. The country and the city smell very different and I always found that very interesting,” she says. “I’m also interested in the value communities place on smell. A neighbourhood might have a cookie factory that generates a certain smell, but once the company relocates, the smell goes and part of the neighbourhood’s identity is lost. Once that generation who experienced the smell is gone, there’s only a vague memory, which is not even recorded.”
Bembibre’s keen to start a public discussion about which smells are culturally important enough to represent our time, worthy of preservation by scientists, and what we’d need to note down now for our successors to understand them in the future. She’s launched a series of “smellwalks” across London to do just that, tours where “noses get priority” as participants consider the olfactory environment around them, rather than the landscape. This could then be used to guide the creation of the world’s first historic smell archive.
Thing is, Bembibre’s still not totally sure all the information she’s collecting will be enough to reproduce each smell. Testing will only happen a year or two down the track, near the end of her doctorate. That’s the moment she’ll learn if time travelling is possible, if we’ll one day be able to both zoom back to the smells
of the past and preserve for tomorrow the whiffs of today. Time – and an excellent set
of nostrils – will tell.