John Green reviews two sensorial wonders: scratch ‘n’ sniff stickers and the Indianapolis 500.
John Green reviews two sensorial wonders: scratch ‘n’ sniff stickers and the Indianapolis 500.
Hello and welcome to The Anthropocene Reviewed, a podcast where we review different facets of the human-centered planet. I’m John Green, and today I’ll be reviewing two sensorial wonders: scratch n sniff stickers and the Indianapolis 500.
Let’s begin with the scratch and sniff sticker.
Smell is one of the places where virtual reality still feels deeply virtual. A few months ago, I found myself on a VR rollercoaster at a theme park in which everything felt stunningly, breath-stealingly real—it wasn’t just that falling felt like falling and turning felt like turning; as I flew through ocean spray, I felt the mist on my face. But that water did not smell like the ocean; it smelled like this room deodorizer we’d used in high school called “Spring Rain.” Spring Rain didn’t actually smell like Spring rain any more than it smelled like the ocean, but the scent was somehow wet, so I could understand why it had been repurposed for ocean scent. Still, nobody who has ever smelled the brackish din of a cresting wave could possibly mistake it for the scent being pumped in to that VR experience, and the smell of Spring Rain wrenched my brain from its state of joyfully suspended disbelief, and suddenly I was not on a flying tour of an alien planet but instead stuck inside a dark room with a bunch of strangers.
One of the things that makes smell so powerful is its connection to memory—the smell of the artificial Spring Rain takes me back to an Alabama dorm room in 1993; the smell of actual Spring rain returns me to the sudden drenching thunderstorms of my childhood.
Of course, smell is complex and difficult to re-create artificially, but there’s something else at play here I think, which is that nothing in the real world smells quite like we imagine it would. Spring rain, for instance, seems like it would smell clean and crisp, like the artificial scent does, but in fact it smells earthy and acidic. Humans, meanwhile, smell like the exhalations of the bacteria that colonize us, a fact we go to extraordinary lengths to conceal, not only via soap and perfume, but also by how we collectively imagine the human scent. Like, if you had an artificial intelligence read every novel ever written and then, based on those stories, guess the human scent, the Artificial Intelligence would be wildly wrong. In our stories, people smell like vanilla, and lavender, and pine trees. The AI would presume we smell like newly mown grass and orange blossoms.
Which, incidentally, were two of the scratch n sniff sticker scents from my childhood. Scratch n Sniff stickers were wildly popular in the 1980s, and I maintained a collection of them in my pink sticker book. They were astonishing to me—if you scratched or rubbed the sticker, a real scent would emerge that wasn’t there until you scratched. Like most virtual scents, scratch and sniff smells tend to be rather indistinct, which is why the stickers generally depict the scent they’re going for—the pizza-scented stickers are usually slices of pizza, and so on. But they really do smell—often quite overpoweringly. The smells best captured by scratch n sniff tend to be either aggressively artificial—cotton candy, for instance—or else straightforwardly chemical.
A sulphury, rotten eggsy odor is added to natural gas so that humans can smell a gas leak. In 1987, the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company sent out scratch and sniff cards to their customers that mimicked that odor so effectively that several hundred people called the fire department to report gas leaks before the cards were discontinued.
By the time I was ten or eleven, everyone had moved on from sticker collecting—everyone, that is, except for me. Even in middle school, I continued to surreptitiously collect stickers, especially scratch and sniff ones. I had all the hits—Garfield eating chocolate; the lawn mower that smelled like grass; the taco sticker that smelled like tacos—but I particularly loved the fruits—raspberry and strawberry smelled so cloyingly oversweet. And bananas—god, I loved scratch and sniff bananas. They didn’t smelled like bananas; they smelled like the Platonic Ideal of bananas. If real bananas were a note played on a home piano, scratch and sniff bananas were that same note played on a church’s pipe organ.
Anyway, the weird part is not that I collected scratch and sniff stickers until I was a teenager. The weird part is, I still have that sticker album. And the scratch and sniff stickers, when scratched, still erupt with scent.
These stickers are created by a process called microencapsulation, which was developed in the 1960s, originally for carbonless copy paper. When you fill out a white paper form and your pen imprints upon the pink and yellow sheets below, that’s microencapsulation at work. Basically, tiny droplets of liquid are encapsulated by a coating that protects the droplet until something breaks it. In scratch and sniff stickers, the microcapsules contain scented oils that are released when rubbing or scratching breaks open the capsules.
Microencapsulation is used for all kinds of things these days—including time released medication—and it has proven a useful technology in part because depending on the coating used, microcapsules can last a very long time.
How long? While researching this review, I asked a few chemists that question, and none was willing to guess at the life expectancy for a scratch and sniff sticker, although one did say that if you kept a sticker dry and away from sunlight, you could expect it to retain its scent for “probably more than a century and less than a millennium.”
At any rate, I know for a fact that scratch and sniff microcapsules can survive for thirty-four years, because I just scratched a garbage can sticker I got when I was seven, and it still smells. Not like garbage, exactly, but like something.
The longevity of microcapsules offers a tantalizing possibility, of course—that a smell might disappear from our world before the microencapsulated version of that smell disappears. The last time anyone smells a banana, it might be via scratch n sniff sticker, or some futuristic version of them, which is the kind of thought that semi-professional reviewers of the Anthropocene find completely irresistible.
We like to make distinctions between natural scents and artificial ones, but at this point in our planet’s story, the truth is that many natural scents are already partly artificial, including the banana. In the U.S., at least, there is only one banana cultivar in most grocery stories, the Cavendish banana, which did not exist 200 years ago and was not widely distributed until the 1950s. I remember the smell of rain as acidic in part because rain in my childhood actually was more acidic than contemporary rain. Humans were pumping more Sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere in the 1980s than they are today, which affects the ph of rain. In my part of the world, rain is still more acidic than it would be without human emissions, so I’m not even sure that I know the smell of natural rain.
And so the challenge for scratch and sniff sticker makers isn’t, in the end, to mimic the natural world, which does not really exist. The challenge is to imagine what combination of smells will make humans remember the smell of bananas, or ocean mist, or freshly mown grass. I wouldn’t bet against humans finding a way to artificialize scent--god knows we’ve artificialized much else. But we haven’t succeeded yet. When I open that ancient sticker book and scratch at the yellowing stickers curling at the edges, what I smell most is my childhood.
I give scratch and sniff stickers three and a half stars.
After the break, we’ll turn our attention to the largest annual non-religious gathering of human beings on Earth. But first…
Every year, near the end of May, between 250,000 and 350,000 people gather in the tiny enclave of Speedway, Indiana, a town that is surrounded by but technically independent from Indianapolis. Speedway is to Indianapolis as the Vatican is to Rome. The Vatican comparisons don’t end there, actually—both Speedway and the Vatican are cultural centers that draw visitors from around the world; both contain a museum; and the Speedway, while commonly called “The Brickyard” is also sometimes known as “The Cathedral of Speed.”
Of course, the Vatican analogy falls apart if you dig deep enough. For one thing, in my admittedly few trips to the Vatican, I have never been offered an ice cold Miller Lite by a stranger, whereas this happens more or less every time I visit Speedway.
At first blush, the Indianapolis 500 seems tailor-made for ridicule. All these people show up one day a year to watch 33 cars take a total of 800 left turns at a high rate of speed. The race is crowded, and usually hot--one year, my phone case partly melted in my pocket while I was watching the race. It’s also extremely loud—in fact, as I’m writing this review, I can hear the cars practicing at the track, which is four miles south of my house. I can tell when they’re entering Turn 3, and when they’re in the short straightaway between Turns 3 and 4.
Also, as a spectator sport, the 500 leaves much to be desired—no matter where you sit or stand, you can’t see the entire track, so important events take place that you cannot follow, and because some cars are laps ahead of others, it’s almost impossible to know who’s winning the race unless you bring oversized headphones to listen to the radio broadcast of the event you are watching live. It’s ridiculous that the largest crowd to watch a sporting event every year cannot see most of that sporting event.
But it has been my experience that almost everything easy to mock turns out to be interesting if you pay closer attention. The Indy 500 features so-called Open Wheel racing, which is to say that the wheels of the cars are not covered by fenders, and the driver’s cockpit is open to the elements. And some truly amazing engineering is involved in getting these cars to travel over 220 miles per hour around the two and a half mile long course. The cars have to be fast, but not so fast that the G-forces in the corners lead the drivers to lose consciousness. The cars have to be responsive, and predictable, and reliable, because while driving at 220 miles per hour, these open-wheeled vehicles are often inches away from each other. Really, over the last 104 years, the Indianapolis 500 has been thinking about a question that is of serious concern to humans in the anthropocene: What is the proper relationship between human and machine?
Today, the track is entirely asphalt except for a single yard of red bricks at the finish line, but when the first Indianapolis 500 took place on May 30th, 1911, the track was paved entirely with bricks—3.2 million of them. The winner of that first 500-mile race was Ray Harroun, who was driving a car that featured his own invention, the rear view mirror. In fact, many early automotive innovators were involved with the Indianapolis 500. Louis Chevrolet, who founded the car company, owned a racing team; his brother Gaston actually won the Indianapolis 500 in 1920 only to die later that year in a race at the Beverly Hills Speedway.
Indeed, racing cars is an exceptionally dangerous sport—42 drivers have died at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the track’s history. Many more have been injured, some seriously—at a race last year in New York, a promising young IndyCar driver named Robert Wickens suffered a spinal cord injury. One of the sport’s leading teams, Schmidt Peterson Racing, is partly owned by Sam Schmidt, a former IndyCar driver who was paralyzed after an accident in 2000. And there’s no escaping the uncomfortable fact that one of the thrills of racing is how drivers get to the edge of disaster. As the legendary driver Mario Andretti put it, “If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.”
I sometimes see racing dismissed as “fans waiting for their favorite drivers to crash,” and I think that’s unfair. Serious crashes are horrifying, and I don’t know anyone who roots for them. But a wreck is also a spectacle, and we’ve sought out such spectacles for millennia. Nearly as many people watched the chariot races in ancient Rome as today watch the Indianapolis 500.
But I do think car racing accomplishes something--it takes both the person and the machine to the edge of possibility, and in the process, we get faster as a species.
It took Ray Harroun six hours and forty two minutes to drive the first 500 miles at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; it took 2018 winner Will Power just under three hours. That’s his real name, by the way. Will Power. Nice guy, by the way. Once I was standing by a valet stand next to Will Power, and when the valet showed up with my 2011 Chevrolet Volt, Will Power said to me, “You know, I am also a Chevrolet driver.”
One of my top-level concerns about humanity is that we cannot seem to resist the urge to go faster—the Indy 500 isn’t really about going fast; it’s about going faster than everyone else. Whether it’s climbing El Capitan or going to space, we want to do it, but we also want to do it first, or at the very least faster and better than anyone else has done it. This drive has pushed us forward as a species—but I worry it has also pushed us in other directions. Maybe in the end we are all children of Icarus.
But I will confess that I think about none of this on race day--I am not thinking about the ever-diminishing distinction between humans and their machines, or about the anthropocene’s accelerating rate of change, or anything. I am, instead, merely happy.
My best friend Chris calls it Christmas for Grown-Ups. My race day starts at 5:30 in the morning. I make a cup of coffee, check the weather, and fill my backpack cooler with ice, water, beer, and sandwiches. By six, I’m checking my bike to make sure the tires are properly inflated and my patch kit is ready. Then I bike down to Bob’s Food Mart, where I meet up with friends and begin the beautiful early morning bicycle trip down Indianapolis’s central canal. Some years, it is raining and cold; other years, the heat is overwhelming. But it is always beautiful, riding and joking with my friends, many of whom I only see once a year. We bike down to Butler University’s track, where every year two of our friends engage in a one-mile foot race at seven in the morning. The IndyCars get faster decade over decade, but the foot race slows down. We place bets, and one or the other of them wins, and then we get back on our bikes for a couple miles before stopping again outside the Indianapolis Museum of Art, where we meet up with more people, until we are a traveling band of a hundred or so bicycles. Everyone waves as we bike by. “Have a good race,” we say to each other, or else, “Safe race!”
We’re together, you see. We bike until the trail dead ends at sixteenth street and then begin the long trip west, merging with the cars that are already stuck in traffic even though the race won’t begin for five more hours. We bike single-file for a nervous-making ten blocks before turning into the town of Speedway. People are sitting out on their porches. Occasionally, a cheer will erupt from seemingly nowhere. Everyone is selling their front yards as parking spots, loudly negotiating the price. The noise level is rising now. I don’t like crowds, but I like this crowd, because I’m in an us that doesn’t require a them.
We make it to the Speedway, chain our bikes to a fence near Turn 2 and then head our separate ways. Some of us like to watch the race from Turn 2; others from the start/finish line. There are more traditions to come: the singing of “Back Home Again in Indiana,” some second tier celebrity saying, “Drivers, Start your engines,” the parade laps, the race itself. Tradition is a way of being with people, not just the people you’re observing the traditions with now, but also all those who’ve ever observed them.
In four or five hours, we will meet back at the fence, unlock our bikes, and repeat the rituals on the way home. We will talk about how this happened or that happened, how we are happy for Will Power, who is such a good guy and finally got his Indy 500 victory. I’ll tell my Will Power story, only to learn that many of my friends also have Will Power stories. Speedway is a small town, even on this day, and we are in it together.
I give the Indianapolis 500 four stars.
Thanks for listening to The Anthropocene Reviewed, which was written by me, edited by Stan Muller, and produced by Rosianna Halse Rojas and Tony Phillips. Joe Plourde is our technical director, and Hannis Brown makes the music. Thanks also to SocialAvocado, who wrote to suggest I review scratch n sniff stickers, and to Chris Waters, who suggested a review of the Indianapolis 500. And a special thanks to everyone who has shared this project with their friends and families; thanks for keeping our strange little boat afloat. If you’d like to suggest a topic for review or just say hi, please email us at Anthropocenereviewed at gmail dot com. My favorite fact that didn’t make it in to today’s reviews: In 1981, the John Waters film Polyester was released in theaters with so-called “Odorama,” wherein viewers could smell what they saw via scratch n sniff cards. Smells included model airplane glue, skunk, and dirty shoes.
We leave you today with the metal machine music of IndyCar, as recorded from my backyard.