Brain Pickings

World Science Festival: Scents and Sensibilities, or How Smell Works

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From pheromones to disease detection via smell, or what your nose has to do with the neurochemistry of nostalgia.

Smell is often considered the most primal and most evocative of our senses. But how does it really work, and what exactly is its secret language? That’s exactly what Scents and Sensibilities explores — a fascinating 90-minute program from the World Science Festival, covering everything from pheromones to the smell of fear to how scent influences behavior to the incredible sentimental value of smells. The full program is now available online in its entirety, an absolute treat of fascination and self-knowledge.

Smell is the only human sense that brings floating molecules from our environment into direct contact with our neurons.”

Particularly intriguing is this segment by neuroscientist and olfactory researcher Leslie Vosshall on how smell actually works and the complex chemical interplay of scents:

Once you go beyond three [olfactory] components, people are completely stumped because the 400 receptors start interacting. It will be like A + B = Z, so a completely different precept emerges, which is why perfumery ends up being so empirical and so artistic. You can predict what you’ll get when you mix two colors, you actually can’t predict what will happen when you mix two smells.” ~ Leslie Vosshall

For more on this infinitely fascinating subject, see Avery Gilbert’s excellent What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life.

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New Philanthropy: End Malaria and Boost Your Own Creative Process

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Altruism by way of self-improvement, or what optimizing your workflow has to do with saving children.

This year, The Domino Project set out to change the future of publishing, and now it’s out to change the future of philanthropy. The project’s latest release, by author Michael Bungay Stanier of Box of Crayons fame, is out to tackle one of our civilization’s grimmest epidemics: malaria. (And if the gravity of the issue still hasn’t stopped you dead in your tracks — like, for instance, the fact that a child dies of malaria every 45 seconds — watch Bill Gates’ 2009 TED talk.)

End Malaria: Bold Innovation, Limitless Generosity, and the Opportunity to Save a Life, released on End Malaria Day today, is a fantastic anthology that will save lives — by helping you be better, smarter, more efficient at your job. The book features essays, tips and insights on great work by 62 leading writers and thinkers — including Brain Pickings favorites Sir Ken Robinson, Brené Brown, Kevin Kelly, Scott Belsky, Barry Schwartz, Daniel Pink, Derek Sivers and more — with $20 out of every $25 book sale (that’s 80%, for the mathematically challenged) going to Malaria No More to buy mosquito nets for Africa, still the most effective malaria prevention method. (For comparison purposes, most product-based charitable contributions are in the 5-10% range.)

Divided into eight key areas of insight — including creating freedom, disrupting “normal,” and taking small steps — the essays range from the pithy to the profound, equal parts actionable blueprint for optimizing your own work and fascinating peek into the workflow and creative process of some of today’s most admired thinkers and doers.

I don’t think there is a reliable twelve-step plan to being in your element that will guarantee the outcome. Human life isn’t like that. But it is possible to offer some navigational tools for those who are committed to the quest.” ~ Sir Ken Robinson

We seek to substitute rules for discretion, scripts for imagination.” ~ Barry Schwartz

Beta is an act of transparency and an admission of humility.” ~ Jeff Jarvis

Vulnerability is not weakness; it is our strongest connection to humanity and to each other. Choosing vulnerability means leaning into the full spectrum of emotions — the dark as well as the light — and examining how our feeling affect the way we think and behave. Vulnerability is equal parts courage, mindfulness, and understanding — it’s being ‘all in.'” ~ Brené Brown

End Malaria is an inspired effort to bridge the divide between selflessness and self-interest, inviting you to help eradicate both malaria and your own creative plateaus with something as humble yet potent as a book — what’s not to love?

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Everything Sings: Making the Case for a New Cartography

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What Ira Glass has to do with atlas antagonism, or what plotting carved pumpkins reveals about place.

The most intimate infographics of all may be maps, those images that tell of our complicated relationships to place, bounded by time. Or at least, this is just one of the interesting arguments made by the book Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas, a beautiful exploration of a small North Carolina neighborhood that also provides a platform for much larger ideas, published by Siglio Press in 2010.

We’ve long believed in the transformative power of maps, which was why we immediately fell in love with Everything Sings and its author, Denis Wood. A kind of counter-culture cartographer, Wood has for decades sought ways to call the seeming objectivity of maps into question. In his fascinating introduction to the book, Wood wonders why map-making was an artistic discipline that somehow escaped modernism’s critical overhaul, its conventions barely changing in the centuries since it was first practiced.

Admitting that atlases were narrative — that they were texts — would force the admission that the individual maps were texts too, that maps constituted a semiological system indistinguishable from other semiological systems, like those of paintings or novels or poems.” ~ Denis Wood

His argument for a kind of “poetics of cartography” provides context to the maps that follow, a narrative about how life was in his Boylan Heights neighborhood in the early 1980s.

Everything Sings grew out of an episode of NPR’s This American Life in which host Ira Glass inadvertently came across Wood’s shelved project from a university course he’d previously taught to landscape architecture students. Glass contributes a fantastic foreword that pretty much sums up what makes the collection so special.

These maps are completely unnecessary. The world didn’t ask for them. They aid no navigation or civic-minded purpose. They’re just for pleasure. They laugh at the stupid Google map I consult five times a day on my phone. They laugh at what a square that map is. At its small-mindedness. They know it’s a sad, workaholic salaryman.” ~ Ira Glass

Here are just a few of our favorite images from the atlas, with excerpts from Wood’s accompanying texts:

Wind Chimes

They were all over -- bamboo, glass, shell, metal tubes. Depending on where you stood, the force of the wind, and the time of day, you could hear several chiming, turning the neighborhood into a carillon.

Image and caption copyrighted Denis Wood & Siglio Press reproduced with permission

Jack-O'-Lanterns

I rode through the neighborhood on my bicycle--it was 1982--and took pictures of all the jack-o'-lanterns.

Image and caption copyrighted Denis Wood & Siglio Press reproduced with permission

Police Calls

All over Boylan Heights, numerous calls to report disturbances reveal a general reluctance to knock on a neighbors' doors and ask them to 'turn it down.' Boylan Heights is small and hardly crime ridden, but this is only a six month's harvest of calls to 911.

Image and caption copyrighted Denis Wood & Siglio Press reproduced with permission

Squirrel Highways

Nervous squirrels, afraid of an attack on the ground, use the phone and television cables as highways wherever the tree canopy's broken. Birds rest on the power lines.

Image and caption copyrighted Denis Wood & Siglio Press reproduced with permission

Pools of Light

When, in the later 19th century, Americans began systematically to light their streets, it was seen as a wholesome influence to cleanliness, as a deterrent to throwing garbage into the streets under the cover of darkness, and as an inducement to leaving windows open at night for healthier sleep.

Image and caption copyrighted Denis Wood & Siglio Press reproduced with permission

Everything Sings may be an antagonist to the traditional practice of cartography, and yet it accomplishes exactly the end that all maps must, if they’re to be of any lasting use: forcing us to see our world, and its many wonders, anew each day.

Images and captions copyrighted Denis Wood & Siglio Press reproduced with permission

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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