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Alien Scientist: Inter-planetary Smell Sensation

Author: Stephen Marshall, Issue: April 2005, Topic: Alien Scientist

Of the five classically recognised senses, the sense of smell sometimes seems like the one we value the least. Smell can seem little more than a foretaste of real taste, or touch. And smellscapes themselves sometimes seem limited compared with other sensory worlds. Unlike intricate visual imagery or complex orchestral compositions, it seems that there is less scope for creating rich aromatic assemblies or symphonies of smell.

Yet, while smell may not seem as direct and instant as seeing or hearing, it can still have its uses. Like the knight's move in chess, it may not always be the fastest or strongest agent, but can get around corners where others can't reach. You may be able to smell what you can't see or hear, and people and things can leave telltale smells once they have long gone from sight or earshot.

Humans can apparently distinguish about ten thousand smells. We may not be consciously aware we have such an olfactory catalogue at our disposal, although just thinking about food can get us imagining. We can distinguish a tuna from a salmon by their smell. One could say that each species, at least, has a smell. And foods like noodles or dumplings that never lived the life of individual species also have their characteristic smells. We can combine species to get more smells: lemon and lime, salt and vinegar or duck and plum sauce have their own distinct aromas. Herbs and spices help multiply the number of smells, to create an explosion of aromatic possibility.

Because the sensation of smell is based on the detection of chemical molecules, we would expect similar kinds of smell to permeate other parts of the universe: planets smelling of iron or methane, at least, if not moons smelling of custard dust. And yet, we must expect lots of new smells to be out there, just as when going abroad you find different concoctions of food smells, even coming from the same natural ingredients. And if a terrestrial chicken can smell different from a terrestrial duck, and a courgette from a cucumber, we must expect alien main courses and accompaniments, however closely they might resemble their Earthling equivalents, to smell a bit different too.

Indeed, the more exotic and complex the alien environment, the more smells we might expect to encounter. We can imagine that sophisticated alien civilisations might create their own synthetic aromas - like different kinds of under-tentacle deodorant, interior chrysallis-freshener, or pollinate-me perfume.

In fact, for all we know, smell might play a much more important role in the lives of certain alien civilisations. Perhaps some alien races can not only detect but mentally catalogue any chemical elements, being able to distinguish the smell of ununnilium from unununium as easily as we can distinguish sulphur from chlorine, or alcohol from H2O.

And perhaps - like Earthling dogs - some alien races may use smell much more, not only to perceive their world, but as a deliberate means of communication. Perhaps a race of alien canines use an array of aromas to transmit messages to each other, and eventually develop a system of telecommunications based on smell, so that a smell carefully emitted in one location can be picked up remotely at another location. Just as humans use cellphones for voice communication, we could imagine our extra-terrestrial tail-waggers sending excited scent messages to each other on their smellphones. And just like voicemail, smellmail would allow subscribers to access any messages deposited while they were out.

Any kind of smell-message, after all, is just a package of smelly molecules - crafty particles too small to sense by sight or touch. So a long-distance smellmessage could in principle have the effect of transmitting a small package of significant particles over great distances. Just as our radio and TV transmissions escape from the Earth to beam out across the galaxy - where they might some day be picked up by some alien civilisation with the right kind of receiver - it is possible to imagine some alien smellmessage transmitted a long way over space and time and eventually picked up on some receptive planet. The message itself might be something quite trivial - some shaggy dog gossip, or a domestic dispute over a buried bone. But, more important than the message might be the medium itself: some kind of chemical package, like a spore, that could end up seeding life on another planet.

Evolution from a canine conversation? Now that would be an inter-planetary smell sensation.

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