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Saturday, July 25, 2020
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Suggestions for your senses,
every Saturday at 9 a.m.
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Good morning.

This week, we read a few books about trees; test-ride the best new electric bikes; eat “ugly” produce from Misfits Market; consider the psychological impact of sirens; and speak with cognitive scientist Ann-Sophie Barwich, author of the new book Smellosophy: What the Nose Tells the Mind.

On our At a Distance podcast, we talk with Exponential View founder Azeem Azhar; New York City Cultural Affairs Commissioner Gonzalo Casals; and sommelier, winemaker, and entrepreneur André Hueston Mack.

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See
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Tree Lines
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Courtesy Princeton Architectural Press
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Long summer days make for more time spent outdoors, in these precarious times at a safe social distance. Especially when we’re cooped up indoors, the next hike or laze in a tree-lined park is never far from our minds—and on our reading lists.

Originally published in 1982 and recently brought back into print, The Architecture of Trees (Princeton Architectural Press) by Italian architect-designers Cesare Leonardi and Franca Stagi is a stunning atlas and visual ode to arboreal splendor. The large-format volume catalogues more than 200 species of trees, each drawn in intricate quill-pen illustrations at 1:100 scale, and even comes with a handy paper ruler, to aid your identification of them in the wild. In her new book, Tree Story: The History of the World Written in Rings (John Hopkins University Press), climate scientist Valerie Trouet offers a window into the world of dendrochronology (tree-ring research), sharing field studies from around the world, and explaining how the discipline has contributed to our understanding of climate history. 

Trees are sensuous subjects of awe and of lyric poetry in The Songs of Trees: Stories From Nature’s Great Connectors (Penguin), by biologist David G. Haskell, who visits a dozen trees around the world, marveling at each with the meditative and watchful eyes and ears of an environmental scientist. Standing beneath a Ceiba pentandra near the center of the Yasuní Biosphere Reserve, in Ecuador, “The rain falls in big syllables, phonemes unlike the clipped rain speech of most other landmasses,” he writes. “I feel inverted, like an image in a teardrop, disoriented by hearing forest rain under my soles.” 

For even deeper reading on the wonders of the natural world, we highly recommend Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures (Random House) by biologist Merlin Sheldrake, with whom recently spoke on Ep. 44 of At a Distance; Robert Macfarlane’s Underland: A Deep Time Journey (W. W. Norton), which explores the Earth’s various, multilayered underworlds through myth, literature, memory, and nature; and Richard Powers’s evocative, masterful Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Overstory (W. W. Norton).

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Touch
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Electric Boogie
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Courtesy Angell
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Bicycling has seen a welcome boom in recent months, as the pandemic has made restless city dwellers wary of both public transportation and gyms, and in need of some regular, stress-busting exercise. Cycling has always offered a sensible, sustainable alternative method of getting around, of course, though new commuters traversing longer distances may need some extra juice. The Angell, designed by Ora-Ïto and currently available for pre-order, may be the most stylish and affordable e-bike option we’ve come across. Equipped with four preset riding modes, integrated lights, and a small touch-screen control panel, it can be charged in just two hours, and is impressively lightweight, at under 4.5 pounds—something you’ll appreciate as you haul it up the stairs, because you won’t want to leave this beauty locked up on the street. Space, of course, is at a premium for apartment-dwellers, and though many folding bikes (including this rather absurd inflatable prototype) can tend to look a bit goofy, the Mate City eBike combines performance and style for the more serious cyclist seeking a longer-term investment. The Danish company also produces a range of more rugged models with fatter tires suitable for all-terrain riding and inclement weather (including this high-performance model with fashion brand Moncler). If neither space nor budget are an issue, look to the Dutch bike-maker VanMoof’s S3, a top-of-the-line offering that boasts a near-silent electric mechanism and a distinctive frame that conceals the battery pack.

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Taste
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Ugly Delicious
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Photo: Andrew Zuckerman
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Supermarkets put billions of pounds of perfectly fine, edible food to waste each year for the very silly, Goldilocks reason of them simply not appearing to be “perfect” enough: Misshapen, too small, too big, or slightly bruised or discolored fruits and vegetables are often deemed unsellable for purely cosmetic reasons—a fact that’s all the more infuriating when you consider that this industry-standard frivolity accounts for one of the largest culprits of carbon emissions worldwide. In the U.S., nearly half of all harvested produce is never eaten. The home-delivery start-up Misfits Market aims to right the wrong of this senseless global food crisis, selling only produce that is certified organic, non-GMO, and free of pesticides—no superficial criteria necessary. The company offers a subscription-based service of a rotating assortment to arrive on a weekly or biweekly basis, similar to a CSA box. The often quirky, imperfect, and—we hesitate to call it this, but yes, “ugly”—produce snubbed by big-box grocers reflects a variability that’s inherent to nature and, looks aside, tastes downright delicious. 

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Hear
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Siren Song
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Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
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As civic life came to a grinding halt this spring, with cities in lockdown around the world, the vivacious cacophony of urban life dulled to a quiet murmur, overcome only by the wail of ambulance sirens cutting through empty streets. Several months on, the trauma and alarm of that sound rings on heavily, with a delicate unease, in our hearts and minds. “Every alarm signals a person in crisis, and that person’s fate is inevitably bound to the fates of others—family and friends. It is a noise that deserves moral attention,” as Siri Hustvedt wrote in a beautiful Financial Times essay in late April. “I have come to think of the sirens as the city’s heartbreaking music, a high-pitched dirge that accompanies the number in the newspaper every day.” 

Inciting discomfort and dread, the siren is a noise that, by design, cannot be ignored. Blaring at 110 decibels on average—nearly double the threshold of noise known to provoke psychological trauma in humans, to say nothing of the emergency responders tasked with employing them—the piercing noise takes a toll on its own, punctuating the persistence of pain and loss in this tragic chapter of history. Omnipresent and unavoidable, this hostile siren song is a soundtrack of suffering that we constantly hope not to hear at all.

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Smell
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Nosing Around
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Courtesy Harvard University Press
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What does our sense of smell have to do with philosophy? In her new book, Smellosophy: What the Nose Tells the Mind (Harvard University Press), cognitive scientist and sense historian Ann-Sophie Barwich delves into the perceptual dimensions of smell. Here, she tells us why scent as yet remains the most mysterious and variable of senses.

Why is it that smell remains so much more mysterious than our other four senses, and in what ways does it remain misunderstood?

Scent is a wildly fascinating topic because it challenges so many of the traditional notions about perception, the mind, the brain, objectivity and subjectivity. We’re very visual creatures—there’s no way around that—and we tend to think of our senses with vision in mind. Vision relates to objects: We can track things, and they’re constantly at the forefront of our consciousness. Smell, by contrast, comes and goes. It’s fleeting and transient, and that ephemerality makes it very hard to keep track of. It challenges these notions of objects of stability, and of a certain perspective variance. 

The other reason is that, experimentally, it’s also harder to study. How do you capture smell; how do you standardize it? If you look at psychological research around scent, one problem is that the stimulus is very hard to administer. Even the slightest contamination or impurities in a mixture can change its smell, which makes replication especially challenging. Only in recent years has scientific technology advanced to the point that we can now capture the molecular basis to a much finer, much better degree and discover what smell is really about on a neural level, and that opens up interesting new questions.

Smell has also historically been sidelined by scientists and philosophers for years, as you explain in your book. 

One not-so-nice reason is that smell was long seen as the sense of women of primitive cultures. There was a lot of sexism and racism involved, and that featured into this notion that it was not a “rational” sense throughout the Enlightenment, which, as its name suggests, was very vision-centric, very much focused on strong cognitive notions—and smell didn’t seem to fit into that picture. It was deemed too sensitive and not really cognitive at all, which is actually a complete misunderstanding. Smell is a highly cognitive process, in actuality, and involves a lot of cross-modal interactions and verbal language. You have to analytically decompose it to understand it. This is why perfumers are winemakers, actually—it takes decades of training. 

Then, of course, we all seem to experience smells differently. There’s a high variation between different people experiencing the same smell and having different responses to it. But even you yourself can have a smell experience one time, and then another time, that same stimulus can appear to be different. So this high variation has been considered a reason to distrust our sense of smell. Only in recent years has this variability been actually linked to biological processes, such as genetic diversity, for instance. My favorite example of this is cilantro: to some, it’s pungent and soapy, and it’s been discovered that there’s a genetic mutation near one of the olfactory receptor genes that accounts for some people to experience it that way. It’s not subjectivity or individual whim—it’s actually down to biology.

Aside from such variances, how does the brain process scent differently?

The olfactory system is one of the most genetically diverse systems. We have about four hundred olfactory receptor genes, compared to vision, where we’ve typically got three color receptors and then rods of light-contrast detection. So we’ve got one of the most genetically diverse receptor gene families in the mammalian genome, but specifically the human genome, and that’s greater than our immune system. That’s astounding, but also makes sense, given how many different chemicals you’re constantly experiencing at any given moment. 

Would you then consider our scent receptors to be a map of sorts?

People often like to speak of our receptors as maps, but I see it as much more flexible than that, as maps suggest a fixed reference point. Instead, I like to speak of it as a set of measurements, or instruments, that are constantly evaluating contexts, more like a flexible database of reference. Everywhere you go, you’re constantly surrounded by chemicals. You might not be aware of them, because you habituate to everything that’s constantly present, but your nose is attuned to detecting every kind of bit and piece that’s in the air—and sometimes it’s being catapulted into your consciousness if it’s highly concentrated enough, if it’s relevant enough for your body to respond. This is what lends to our genetic diversity: Humans move about habitats a lot. Our sense of smell is our wide-grade repertoire for adapting to different environments.

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Until next week...

Today’s email was written by Aileen Kwun.

Editor: Spencer Bailey
Creative Director: Andrew Zuckerman
Producer: Mike Lala
Copy Editor: Mimi Hannon

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