In the early 20th century, James "Smelly" Kelly used his legendary sense of smell and DIY inventions to find hazards, leaks, elephant poop, and eels that were causing problems in the New York City subway system. Atlas Obscura's Eric Grundhauser profiles the the man known as The Sniffer:
In addition to finding water leaks and plumbing issues, Kelly was also responsible for detecting dangerous gas and chemical leaks. From invisible gas fumes that could be ignited by a random spark, to gasoline draining into the system from above-ground garages, Kelly was there to find them out using his allegedly hypersensitive nose.
The most sensational tale of Kelly’s sense of smell was the time he was called to a 42nd Street station to suss out a stench that had overtaken the platforms. According to Kelly’s own account, the smell was so bad it almost bowled him over, but as he got his head back in the game, he pinpointed the source of the reek as… elephants. Amazingly, he was correct. The station in question had been built beneath the location of the old New York Hippodrome, which had been torn down in 1939. The Hippodrome had often featured a circus, and layers of elephant dung had ended up buried at the site. A broken water main had rehydrated the fossilized dung and subsequently leaked into the subway. Until, that is, Smelly Kelly was able to identify it.
"The Man Who Used His Nose to Keep New York’s Subways Safe" (Atlas Obscura)
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Water is viscous. With heat, the viscosity drops. And you can hear the difference in its splash.
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This video explains the weirdness of the McGurk effect, a perceptual illusion demonstrating that understanding speech is not just about what we hear, but also what we see. You can learn more about the McGurk effect at Yale's Haskins Laboratories dedicated to the science of the spoken and written wordl. (via Imaginary Foundation) Read the rest
After you spent all that time in grade school conditioning yourself to know that snakes stick out their tongues in order to smell
things, it turns out that those tricksy animals were also tasting with their tongues
, all along. Read the rest
Other senses besides taste matter in determining what your food tastes like and whether you like it. And we're not just talking about scent here. At Science Sushi, Christie Wilcox explains how things like noise levels, plate colors, and the weight of silverware affect what we think we like to eat. Read the rest
This review also appears on Download the Universe, a group blog reviewing the best (and worst, and just "meh") in science-related ebooks and apps.
When I go to science museums, I like to press the buttons. I'm convinced this is a special joy that you just do not grow out of. Hit the button. See something cool happen. Feel the little reward centers of your brain dance the watusi.
But, as a curmudgeonly grown-up, I also often feel like there is something missing from this experience. There have definitely been times when I've had my button-pushing fun and gotten a few yards away from the exhibit before I've had to stop and think, "Wait, did I just learn anything?"
Science museums are chaotic. They're loud. They're usually full of small children. Your brain is pulled in multiple directions by sights, sounds, and the knowledge that there are about 15 people behind you, all waiting for their turn to press the button, too. In fact, research has shown that adults often avoid science museums (and assume those places aren't "for them") precisely because of those factors.
Sound Uncovered is an interactive ebook published by The Exploratorium, the granddaddy of modern science museums. Really more of an app, it's a series of 12 modules that allow you to play with auditory illusions and unfamiliar sounds as you learn about how the human brain interprets what it hears, and how those ear-brain interactions are used for everything from selling cars to making music. Read the rest
On the left is a picture of me with my bike, taken by my friend Laura Kling. On the right is the same image, as it would be seen by a person with protanopia — a relatively common (as in, still very rare) form of color blindness that affects the ability to see green, yellow, and red colors.
The Color Blindness Simulator will allow you to do this with your own photos. Read the rest
Last week, I posted a link to a story on the Atlantic
, all about the history of research into supertasters — humans with the ability to taste a bitter compound called phenylthiocarbamide. It's a big part of why some people can't stand the taste of broccoli, and others love it. But that one piece isn't the full story. According to taste geneticist Stephen Wooding, it wasn't even totally accurate. Instead, he suggested three articles that anybody curious about supertasting should read. First, a history of the science that he wrote for the journal Genetics
. Second, a long read by Cathryn Delude about research that might, someday, make broccoli delicious for everybody
. And a University of Utah site that explains the genetics of taste
. Read the rest
TIL: That what we think of as "pain" is actually two different things. The most basic sense is called nociception — a non-subjective reflex that drives lots of animals to pull away from dangerous things. Pain — actual pain — is what happens after nociception, and different individuals perceive it differently under different situations. So, for example, nociception is why you jerk your hand away from a hot stove. Pain is the feeling that helps you learn not to touch hot stoves again. Oh, and also, crabs might be capable of feeling both. Read the rest