Smells like Teen Spirit, and Other News


On the Shelf

That way lies madness—and great innovations in odor-concealing technology.


  • There are great things happening along the I-95 corridor. The rest stops, for one—if you’ve stopped at the Walt Whitman Service Area on the New Jersey Turnpike, you know what paradise is. But what if I told you that there’s something in the vicinity even better than the rest stops? And what if, to sweeten the deal, I added that it concerns antiperspirant technology? Adam Davidson has the facts: “You smell better now—and will smell even better in the future—because of the advances that are occurring along Interstate 95 between Philadelphia and Newark. You could call that stretch of road ‘the stink highway.’ This revolution began in 1990, when George Preti, a scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia, isolated the specific molecule (3-methyl-2-hexenoic acid) that produces the distinct odor of underarm sweat. Before Preti’s discovery, you had to, in his words, ‘carpet bomb’ smells by applying a perfume strong enough to overwhelm and erase all odors. Once Preti cracked the code, scientists could create scents that adhere only to the nasal sensors that are most sensitive to 3-methyl-2-hexenoic acid. Deodorant designers are now able to create precisely the scent they want, which could be no discernible scent at all.”
  • A literary collector is parting with some of his most impressive acquisitions—pony up and you could take home, say, a letter from Proust bemoaning the sex he’s been forced to overhear. Danuta Kean writes, “The most amusing letter in the collection … was from Proust to the son of his landlord … Proust complains about being able to hear his neighbors’ loud sex. The noise was not the problem, the letter reveals: ‘Beyond the partition, the neighbors make love every two days with a frenzy of which I am jealous.’ ”

  • Trumpism might seem like an intellectually bankrupt excuse for a political philosophy, but that’s just because it doesn’t have an official magazine. Cue American Affairs, a new periodical with a formidable institutional pedigree, designed to legitimize a completely illegitimate strain of conservative “thought.” Gideon Lewis-Kraus tries to make sense of it: “The establishment of a new magazine—especially one that aspires to political relevance or even power—is invariably an act of vanity. But it’s vanity of a peculiar sort, one less interested in the extension or preservation of individual ambition than in the investiture of a new community of belief … American Affairs clearly has a generational hue, but it remains unclear how its deviations might take actual shape. Save for the tweedy aesthetic, little about it really harks back to an earlier generation of conservative thinking, and in fact the editors have gone out of their way to distance themselves from both the neoconservative and free-market orthodoxies that have driven so much of the American right since the 1960s. Instead, they strive to position themselves as a bipartisan consensus against the bipartisan consensus (though the seriousness of this aspiration remains an open question), and they often make it clear that they dislike Dick Cheney as much as they distrust Larry Summers.”
  • I love a sea cow. I’ll never lay eyes on one—they’re extinct—but that hasn’t stopped me from nursing a deep affection from them. Georg Steller, an eighteenth-century German naturalist, was the first to describe the creatures, which were relatives of manatees and dugongs. A single one of them weighed ten tons. Fewer than thirty years after he first observed them, they’d vanished from the earth, Jacob Mikanowski writes: “Steller was shocked to realize that this creature was a type of manatee, thousands of miles from its nearest relatives in the tropics. He describes the sea cows as gentle giants, whose only real defense against being harpooned was their incredibly thick hides. He also notes that they seem to have been unusually loyal to one another, which proved to be more of a liability than an asset when the Russians began hunting them for food. They had, in his words, ‘an uncommon love for one another, which even extended so far that, when one of them was hooked, all the others were intent upon saving him.’ When the Russians harpooned one of the sea cows, others would come to its defense, making a circle around their wounded comrade. When they killed a female, they were astonished to see its mate visit the beach where its body lay day after day, ‘as if he would inform himself about her condition.’ ”
  • The phrase on everyone’s lips is now more than ever, a cunning bit of rhetoric that really does no favors for anyone, as the editors of n+1 observe: “To perceive ‘now’ as being ‘more than ever,’ one has to be in a period of crisis and disjuncture—or at least feel like one is. And ‘now more than ever’ has always been used to sell things in moments of crisis. Like ASAP, it’s an efficiently grandiose way to convey a false sense of urgency. Google Ngram shows pervasive use of the phrase in the nineteenth century—mostly, it seems, in missionary tracts, where it conveyed evangelical fervor. It fell out of favor in the early twentieth century, then spiked again during the world wars. ‘During the war,’ the Economist wrote in 1949, ‘advertisers, in an effort to sell goods totally unrelated to the seriousness of the time, found the value of sentences beginning “Now more than ever … ,” which helped them to sell tennis racquets and bathing suits with the argument that keeping fit was now more than ever vital.’ ”