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Smell is such an integral part of being human, yet it's probably our least thought-about sense. We take it for granted, often focusing instead on what we can see, hear, taste and touch. But what if we had a guidebook on how to approach life through smell and take advantage of the aromas that confront our noses throughout the day?

This is essentially what author Jude Stewart (Patternalia) provides in her new book, Revelations in Air: A Guidebook to Smell, a comprehensive handbook chock-full of guidance, advice and new ways to experience a sense that is barely understood. Stewart writes that smell's "liveness," its dynamic and embodied nature, is what drew her to it and led her on a journey to sniff with more intention. Along the way she realized that "smelling is a kind of meditation turned inside out.

Starting with the science of smell, Stewart discusses the nose's function and purpose, outlining the chemistry required for smell "to reach us," the anatomical role of the body's olfactory bulbs and smell's emotional connection to the brain and memory. She then breaks various smells into categories such as sweet, savory, earthy and funky. The usual suspects are featured, such as rose, vanilla and bacon, as well as some surprising scents many of us will never get a chance to experience, including cannon fire, melting permafrost and extinct flowers.

Stewart effortlessly combines the fascinating science behind smell with historical examples, musical comparisons and cultural differences in how smells are viewed and experienced. Revelations in Air gives a fresh perspective on and appreciation for this often-ignored sense.

Jude Stewart provides a guidebook to smell that’s chock-full of guidance, advice and new ways to experience the aromas around us.

Terry Virts shares 10 of the wildest, most surprising aspects of going to space—and he ought to know. He’s done it twice!


I had two goals for How to Astronaut: to make the reader say “Wow!” and to make them laugh. I didn’t want to write another typical astronaut book—say, an autobiography or a technical guide. I wanted a book that would be easy reading—something for the beach or the nightstand, a kind of literary comfort food. Here’s a taste, with 10 things about space travel you may find interesting, surprising or funny.

1. Learning Russian 

Whenever a new astronaut shows up at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, they probably think they’re pretty good at a few things. They were either the hotshot jet pilot at their military base, the top doctor at their hospital or the nerdiest computer nerd at their engineering job. But one thing I learned during my time as an astronaut is that whatever you think you’re good at, there’s always someone better. For example, I thought I was pretty decent at foreign languages until I had to learn Russian, which was probably the hardest thing I’ve done in my life. It’s a required language because the Russians are such important partners in the International Space Station (ISS) program, and it ended up being something I loved; but I must admit, the first 10 years were the hardest.

2. Chez Terry

When I signed up to be an F-16 pilot many years ago, and when I joined the astronaut corps some years later, there were a lot of things I expected to do. Cutting women’s hair was not one of them. But when Samantha Cristoforetti was assigned as my Italian crewmate, that was exactly what I had to learn to do. It was the most hair-raising thing I did in my seven-plus months in space. You’ll have to ask Samantha if I did OK, but I never heard any complaints.

3. Rodent research 

Everyone knows that astronauts do science in space. After all, that is the purpose of the ISS and the reason that our 15-nation partnership has spent tens of billions of dollars over decades on the station program. Honestly, though, this fighter pilot never expected to dissect mice in space—but that’s exactly what I did. Ultimately it was worth it because the rodent research we did is very important for the pharmaceutical industry and will hopefully lead to better medications down here on Earth.

4. The red button

 I wish you could have seen the look on the face of the poor guy at the Kennedy Space Center who was giving my astronaut class their first tour of Cape Canaveral. It was an innocent question that I asked: “What’s that red button for?” The answer was a little surprising, to say the least. It was the button he would use to blow up my space shuttle, with my butt on board, if we went off course during launch. It reminds me of a song: “Don’t ask me no questions, and I won’t tell you no lies.”

5. Potty talk 

Well, what can I say? There are several chapters in How to Astronaut on this topic. Frankly, it’s the most popular question we get as astronauts. To put it succinctly, yes, astronauts do wear diapers.

6. Making movies in space

When I learned that we would be filming an IMAX movie during my mission, I was beside myself with joy. Helping to make A Beautiful Planet was my favorite thing I did while in space. Plus, I got to learn the craft of filmmaking from my director, Toni Myers. It’s a skill I’ve transitioned into my post-NASA career.

7. Doing the deed

This is the second most popular question we get. Have astronauts done it in space? You’ll have to read the book to find out, but as for me and my time on the ISS, it was a long 200 days . . .

8. What to do if you’re stranded in space

It’s a bit of a morbid subject and not one that we talk about very often, but if your rocket engine doesn’t light up to fly you back to Earth while you’re in orbit or on the moon, you have the rest of your life to figure out what to do.

9. What to do with a dead body 

I don’t remember discussing this subject in any of my NASA training, but the astronauts we fly are not exactly spring chickens, and in any case, humans don’t have a good record of being immortal. On top of it all, the space environment isn’t the safest place to be. If we continue to travel beyond our planet, future space crews will eventually have to reckon with this question.

10. Juxtaposition between the sublime and the mundane

This is the best way I can describe space flight. During the first minutes of my first shuttle flight, when I was busy helping to fly Endeavour as her pilot, I saw the most amazing sights out the window—things humans weren’t meant to see. I experienced this dissonance a thousand times during my seven months in space: 99% of my time was spent on mundane, mechanical tasks, but 1% of the time I felt like I was seeing God’s view of the universe.

 

Author photo credit Jack Robert Photography

Terry Virts shares 10 of the wildest, most surprising aspects of going to space—and he ought to know. He’s done it twice! I had two goals for How to Astronaut: to make the reader say “Wow!” and to make them laugh. I didn’t want to write another typical astronaut book—say, an autobiography or a technical […]

In a behind the book essay, Mary Roach—bestselling author of Spook and Stiff—shares the curious marketing strategy for her latest book, Grunt.


Roach shows off her latest marketing marvel

 

When I do book talks, I always take a moment to display to the audience the special free giveaway for everyone who buys a book. For Spook, purchasers received an “Ectoplasm Bookmark”! Spiritualist mediums in the 1920s used to swallow tightly wadded cheesecloth and covertly regurgitate it during séances. (Spread out in the dark, it looked ghostly and filmy.)

You might not think that a 1" x 4" strip of unadorned cheesecloth would motivate a person to buy copies of a $32 hardback, and there you’d be mistaken.

You might not think that a 1" x 4" strip of unadorned cheesecloth would motivate a person to buy copies of a $32 hardback, and there you’d be mistaken. I personally have always been a sucker for this kind of thing. I am a child of the Cracker Jack era, back when the prize inside was a tiny metal or plastic toy, not a goddam rub-on tattoo.    

With Bonk, I had colorful travel toothbrushes custom-printed to say KEEP YOUR CAVITIES FILLED (and a website URL). In Salt Lake City, a man handed it back, saying, “I’ll just throw it away when I get home.” I recall sitting there at my signing station, carrying on a conversation with the next person in line, all the while thinking, “Who would throw this away? Doesn’t everyone need a colorful travel toothbrush?”  

Packing for Mars readers got a spoonful of genuine simulated moon dust, the kind NASA was purchasing in great heaps to be sure dust particles weren’t going to gum up rover engines or scratch camera lenses when we went back to the moon. We never did go back there, so the whole enterprise was something of a bust. Your taxpayer dollars at work for Mary Roach giveaways.

For the new book Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, I tracked down the manufacturers of the tiny toilet paper packets that go into every US MRE (Meals-Ready-to-Eat—combat rations). They’re made 10 miles from my home, in a warehouse run by the San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind. Elsewhere I had stickers made up that say GRUNT, plus a website URL. I’ll give the packets out at the signing table during the book tour, but I also plan to leave them in airport and restaurant bathroom stalls. The juvenile double-entendre seemed to dovetail nicely with my reputation.

When I went to pick them up, manager Skip Foster showed me how they’re made. A five-foot-wide roll that the people there call the “King Kong toilet paper roll” is mounted on a machine that feeds it into “slitters” that make a row of normal-TP-width strips. The machine then stacks, folds, and compresses these strips, which are then separated into units, wrapped, and spit into a waiting box at a rate of a thousand per minute.


Roach and Skip with the King Kong Toilet Paper Roll

 

Military TP is made to US Government Toilet Paper Specifications, and as such is stronger than most commercial brands. Servicemen and women complain about it because they want more of it. Skip tried to persuade the military to include two packets in each MRE, but had no luck with that.    

I don’t know how many books it will move, but it certainly made for an interesting morning.

RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of Grunt

 

In a behind the book essay, Mary Roach—bestselling author of Spook and Stiff—shares the curious marketing strategy for her latest book, Grunt.

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