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07.23.2006

It's The Bee's Knees. Er. Nose.

If we're reasonably perceptive people, we all have moments in life where things are revealed to us that provide a whole new layer of understanding and complexity to the world. One that I only vaguely remember took place in sixth or seventh grade, but outside the context of school. I think it was a friend's father who was trying to help me understand that we don't really "see" the world, rather, he was trying to get me to understand that what we see is only a tiny slice of "reality." He then proceeded to show me a series of images which were attempts to represent the way a bee sees parts of the world -- a flower, a person, a tree. The images were colorful, and interesting to be sure, but when he went on to point out that those colors corresponded to information that we were used to getting from other senses (or in some cases, not getting at all) I had that, "Oh, WOW" moment. I later confirmed all of this through personal experience with Psilocybin mushrooms, but somehow I lost my notes.

Apart from seeing the world differently, insects have some of the most sophisticated "noses" known to science. These odor receptors, in various forms, are what allow them to find food, communicate, create social structures, defend themselves, and generally survive in the world. Think about the complexity of a moth which, because of its body form, can only drink nectar from a single species of orchid in the rain forest. It's gotta be able to smell that orchid from far, far away.

Scientists are now using detailed studies of the ways in which insects perceive odors to design tools all sorts of useful things in the wine business -- detecting Brettanomyces and TCA (two biological contaminants that can ruin wines), oxygen or even heat damaged wines, and more. They've developed what they're calling "cybernoses" based on the some of the nearly sixty different varieties of odor receptors that are found in a single insect's smelling apparatus.

I think this is incredibly cool, of course, and certainly very useful, but I really want to know what this cybernose is going to look like when they're done with it and you can buy it at Radio Shack. I hope they create a nice case for it, maybe one that looks like a Basset Hound.

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