In Space, No One Can Smell the Earth

Aníbal and I spend an entire chapter on sensory experience in Observation and Ecology.  We note that the best ecologist use much more than just their visual sense to observe the world.  Sometimes this is forced upon them.  Geerat Vermeij, a UC Davis professor of paleobiology, who contributed a fabulous text box to our book, and is one of the most skilled living naturalists, has been blind since a young age, and thus does much of his observing by touch.  Great birders can tell you the identity, sex and proclivities of hidden birds just by sound. And the famous naturalist/philosopher Ed Ricketts, as reported by his good friend John Steinbeck, richly used all his senses to make ecological and sociological discoveries.

As Steinbeck notes in his eulogy for Ricketts, About Ed Ricketts: “with any new food or animal he looked, felt, smelled, and tasted,” adding a story that Ed, “reached under water and picked up a lovely orange-colored nudibranch and put it in his mouth. And instantly he made a horrible face and spat and retched, but he had found out why fishes let these living tidbits completely alone.”

Given the rich sensory world around us, it’s worth noting what senses we most would miss in their absence.  I was surprised to read in the September 29, 2012 NewScientist in an interview with astronaut Andrew Feustel, that both after his expedition in space and after a recent six day caving expedition, the thing that struck him most upon return to the Earth’s surface was the smell.

It’s not that things don’t smell in space.  I imagine that rehydrated packages of food emit small wafts of Tang-y smells (bad pun in honor of the aforementioned Geerat Vermeij).  It’s that they don’t exist on top of a matrix of rich background smells.  Without the continually metabolizing micro and macro-biome of  Earth, a space station expresses its sterility in smells—or the lack thereof.

In the book, Aníbal and I talk about the difference between the casual observing one does every day to survive and the focused, intent kind of observation—what Vermeij in his contributions calls, “the essential, and increasingly ignored, role of sensation—of observation with the brain in gear,”  one needs to conduct to do science.  In other words, there’s a lot of sensing we do, but don’t record, until we really need it. I think that smell is the sense we most ignore in those casual daily observations, and thus the one that most surprises us when all of a sudden an odor hits us and we instantly know what it is, or it instantly transports us to a particular time and place.  As astronaut Andrew Feustel remarked of his first renewed smell of Earth, “it lit up my imagination and reminded me I was home.”


About Rafe

Rafe Sagarin is a marine ecologist and environmental policy analyst at the University of Arizona. In both his science and policy work, Sagarin connects basic observations of nature to issues of broad societal interest, including conservation biology, protecting public trust resources, and making responses to terrorism and other security threats more adaptable. Dr. Sagarin is a recipient of a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship and has recently published two books, Learning from the Octopus (Basic Books, March 2012) and Observation and Ecology (Island Press, July 2012), which show how nature observation--when extended across large scales and enhanced with both new technologies and greater deference to traditional knowledge sources—is revealing profound new insights about our dynamic social and ecological world. He was a Geological Society of America Congressional Science Fellow in the office of U.S. Representative (and later U.S. Secretary of Labor) Hilda Solis. He has taught ecology and environmental policy at Duke University, California State University Monterey Bay, Stanford University, University of California, Los Angeles and University of Arizona. His research has appeared in Science, Nature, Conservation Biology, Ecological Monographs, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Foreign Policy, Homeland Security Affairs and other leading journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the editor, with Terence Taylor of the volume Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World (2008, University of California Press).
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