A Year In New York

A Daily Bite of the Big Apple

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Day 70: Smells Like New York

September 5th · 2 Comments

The streets of New York have a scent unlike those of any other city, a pungent cocktail of its particular atmosphere: worn concrete, 60 percent relative humidity, urine, the dusty exhalations of old buildings, ambition, salty ocean air, the body odor of eight million people and the fragrances they use to mask it, sewage, wilting cabbage, shoe leather, the oxygen of a few valiant trees and the steam from boiling hot dogs.

Of course that gets me no closer to understanding what a smell actually is, and that’s why I attended a lecture last night at a bar in Brooklyn by Leslie Vosshall, a neurogeneticist who specializes in smell.

She spoke as a guest of the Secret Science Club, one of the dozens of free, beer-scented discussions of science topics being held at bars across the country. Science cafes, as they’re known, are as hot as a Bunsen burner these days. I wrote a story for Wired about their popularity last year, but still it was surprising to arrive 15 minutes late and find the door closed with a sign in the jamb that said, “Sorry, Tonight’s Science Event is Full.”

It had taken me forever to subway here, taking the R Line all the way to Park Slope, and I would not be so easily deterred. A few of us jostled through into a basement crammed with about 150 people. As I pressed against a wall, my nostrils detected the odor of flesh and air-conditioning ducts.

One of Vosshall’s specialties is how mosquitoes smell us out and what we can do to cloak our natural odors against them. This is a hot topic in the tropics, where death and illness from malaria take a large toll, but is also an issue here in NYC, where three people were killed by West Nile Virus just last year. (The virus, by the way, is suspected to have entered the U.S. via infected birds brought through JFK in 1999.)

The best weapon we have against mosquitoes is DEET, or N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide, a greasy and noxious substance that melts plastic and somehow repels mosquitoes, no one knows quite how. Or at least no one did until Vosshall’s lab demonstrated that DEET blocks the mosquito’s odor receptors. Understanding this, we humans are one step closer to a better bug repellent.

I walked back out, past the hoppy scents of the bar and down Union Street, enjoying the uncomplicated air of Park Slope, lined with brick buildings only three and four stories tall.

Then back onto the subway platform, where I sniffed at the air for the (I knew now) 10,000 odors that my schnoz can identify, each of which has its own molecular structure.  Among them, apparently, are stale subway-tunnel air, hot steel, spilt Pepsi, and the cigarette that somebody had enjoyed on the sly.

Tags: Sights & Scenes

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Les // Sep 5, 2008 at 7:58 pm

    Did somebody just have eggs and beans!?

  • 2 Margaret // Sep 7, 2008 at 10:44 am

    Hi David,

    Thanks for the shout out–and for heading out to Brooklyn for the Secret Science Club! Sorry we missed you–any friend of Kishore’s is a friend of ours. Great post!

    Cheers,
    Margaret

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