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Data You Can Smell: Gas Chromatography and the Promise of Olfactory Policing
Data You Can Smell: Gas Chromatography and the Promise of Olfactory Policing
WhenWednesday, Jan. 15, 2020, 4 – 5 p.m.
Campus locationPhysics / Astronomy Building (PAT)
Campus roomWRF Data Science Studio 6th Floor
Event typesLectures/Seminars
Event sponsorseScience Institute - Anissa Tanweer,

Department of Human Centered Design and Engineering - David Ribes,

Information School - Megan Finn,

Science, Technology and Society Studies Program - Leah Ceccarelli,
Target AudienceArts/humanities/social sciences/data+computer science

This talk examines how the technique of gas chromatography-olfactometry was mobilized by researchers in the 1960s and ‘70s in an effort to generate olfactory data that could be used to identify and police foods and bodies. Early efforts to characterize the qualities of volatile (and thus smell-able) molecules crossed disciplinary boundaries, bringing together researchers interested in food, perfume, and military defense. Combining the gas chromatograph with a human nose as detector allowed researchers to begin cataloging what molecules mattered in the volatile mixtures obtained from smelly things – and people. Researchers refined their ability to use gas chromatography-olfactometry to make data about molecules by first making molecules into data: from testing whether people of different races and sexes had different olfactory “fingerprints,” to characterizing and then erasing women’s naturally-occurring vaginal odors. The process of making molecules into data proved central to the standardization of gas chromatography-olfactometry; it paved the way for the development of ASTM’s Atlas of Odor Character Profiles, and continues to shape contemporary smell research.

Talk adapted from Christy Spackman, Ordering Volatile Openings: Instrumentation and the Rationalization of Bodily Odors; Food, Culture and Society 22, 5 (2019);…

Bio: Christy Spackman is Assistant Professor, jointly appointed in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and School of Arts, Media, and Engineering at Arizona State University. Her research examines the management of sensory experience in the food industry, and its impacts on how we think about the environment. She is frantically finishing her book manuscript, Making Nothing, in the interstitial moments of her life.

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