Sunday, January 1, 2017

A new smelly word

You’re never too old to learn something new.
            I recently discovered a new word that I intend on using as much as possible, because it’s a word that the world should know. It’s not a fancy adjective or anything very complicated; it’s actually a word for something we’ve all encountered but never really knew what it was.
            Petrichor. There’s a chance that some of you are already familiar with it, but for those who are not, petrichor is the distinct earthy smell you sense when rain falls. Especially when it’s been dry for quite a while.
            Noticing this smell is nothing new, and in fact ancient peoples believed that the odor was coming from a rainbow. To think that a rainbow has a smell is something magical in my mind—something absolutely non-scientific but still dreamy beyond reason.
            It wasn’t until the 1960’s that some Australian chemists started experimenting with this weird smell. They found that certain types of clay gave off a strong odor when relative humidity reached 80%. It was these guys who gave that odor the name “petrichor,” which is Greek for “stone essence.” This time the dreamy magical stuff had some scientific background.
            The chemists found out that these chemicals were actually given off by plants and collected these oils that were floating in the atmosphere. I have no idea how they did it, but I image a bunch of lab coats out with tiny butterfly nets, harnessing the flora sweat of the woods. They concentrated these oils and found out that they really stunk. Eau de Forest wasn’t all that great.
            But then they figured out that the clay particles in the soil actually trap the oils and using iron as a catalyst, the oils are converted into the lovely scent I love to breathe in deeply every time it rains.
            Nature apparently enjoys petrichor, too. Some scientists theorize that petrichor might be a mysterious growth promoter, a signal throughout the land for mushrooms and plants to sprout up extra quickly after a much needed rain.
            All of this fascinates me. Partly because nature works in ways we will never understand, and partly because some people are actually smart enough to figure it all out. It also fascinates me because now I know a little bit more about this great smell. The next time I get a whiff I can say, “ahh, take in all of those plant oils converted by iron-rich clay soil and giving off that lovely growth signal.”
            Or maybe I can just say, “ahh, petrichor.”

            Now that I know scientists have effectively come up with a name for one of my favorite smells, maybe they can find a name for my favorite color: that pinkish-orange with a yellow tint that the world turns at sunset. Maybe they have, maybe it’s Greek for “dreamy magical color.”

Originally written 6.14.15

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