» HOW THE NOSE KNOWS: Vibrations?

by Brian Awehali

Fifth-Century Greek philosopher Democritus, the putative founder of modern science and atomic theory, who laughed constantly and lived more than one hundred years, once had occasion to ponder our sense of smell. It was, he theorized, the result of our nose reading the shape of airborne particles. Democritus called these particles “atoms,” and he thought sweet atoms were “round and of a good size,” while sour ones were “bulky, jagged, and many angled.”

This “shapist” theory of smell, or olfaction, continues to this day. It boils down to the essential concept of tiny pieces of things being “read” by receptors in our nose. Democritus called these pieces “atoms,” but he had no sense of atomic theory in the modern sense, which asserts that these pieces are, in fact, molecules. But that’s just a theory, and the truth is that no one really knows how our sense of smell works. The shapist theory has many inconsistencies and demonstrated limitations. Molecules with the same shape produce different smells; inversely, two molecules with completely different shapes can produce the same smell (sandalwood).

On August 6, 1945, at 8:15am, miles away from the site of the Hiroshima bombing, people reported an impossibly bright light and the smell of burning rubber. This posed a problem for the shape theory of smell: If smell was the result of particulate matter – molecules – landing on receptors in the nose, how then to explain the instantaneous travel of molecules from the blast site to noses miles away?

Continue reading

» HUMANS ARE A VIRUS WITH SHOES

by Brian Awehali

People suck, and that’s my contention.
We’re a virus with shoes.

Bill Hicks

I quite like a lot of people, but there’s much to recommend Hicks’ notion that we are viruses with shoes. It’s a fact that well over 40% of the human DNA chain is viral in origin, as Michael Specter writes in a fascinating New Yorker article, “Darwin’s Surprise”:

Nothing—not even the Plague—has posed a more persistent threat to humanity than viral diseases: yellow fever, measles, and smallpox have been causing epidemics for thousands of years. At the end of the First World War, fifty million people died of the Spanish flu; smallpox may have killed half a billion during the twentieth century alone…

Scientists have long suspected that if a retrovirus happens to infect a human sperm cell or egg, which is rare, and if that embryo survives—which is rarer still—the retrovirus could take its place in the blueprint of our species, passed from mother to child, and from one generation to the next, much like a gene for eye color or asthma.

One scientist interviewed for the New Yorker article, Thierry Hiedmann, contends that the mapping of the human genome project and recent findings about “endogenous retroviruses” show that genes and viruses are not, in fact, distinct entities, and that the concept of virus and humanity as enemies or combatants, rather than as co-evolutionary forces, is in error. Heidmann and others have even suggested that without viral influence, mammals might never have developed a placenta, which protects the fetus and gives it time to mature and led to live birth. “These viruses made those changes possible, [and] It is quite possible that, without them, human beings would still be laying eggs.”

So the stuff of us, the meat of our matter, is partially viral in origin. What of our language, and our culture?

Continue reading