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As if Commercials Weren’t Bad Enough Already

• September 09, 2011 • 4:00 AM

Do we really need to smell the items featured in TV programming? A materials expert has created a function for your TV or portable device that can generate thousands of odors.

After a two-year experiment, researchers at the University of California, San Diego, in conjunction with Samsung, have written a concept paper in the journal Angewandte Chemie explaining that they think it’s possible to “generate potentially thousands of odors, at will, in a compact device small enough to fit on the back of your TV.”

To which we say: Gross.

But here’s how Sungho Jin, a world-renowned materials expert at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering, described his invention: “For example, if people are eating pizza, the viewer smells pizza coming from a TV or cell phone. And if a beautiful lady walks by, they smell perfume. Instantaneously generated fragrances or odors would match the scene shown on a TV or cell phone.”

September-October 2011 The small device would generate scent from an aqueous solution, such as ammonia. When heated by electrical current, the solution produces an odorous gas in a nontoxic, non-flammable compartment. As the heat and pressure build, a tiny hole opens and emits the odor.

The team tested its device on two popular perfumes, “Live by Jennifer Lopez,” and “Passion by Elizabeth Taylor.” In each case, human testers could smell and distinguish the perfumes when they were within 30 centimeters of the test device. (Kind of clashes with mom’s advice about not sitting too close to the set, though.)

With a range of more than 10,000 odors, the possibilities are endless. Forget pizza and perfume, imagine the lovely places television takes us: crime-scene investigations, casinos, the Jersey Shore, the sewers cleaned in Dirty Jobs

Lady Gaga, Explained?
An Emory University study says monitoring the brain activity of teenagers while they listen to new songs could help predict the popularity of the tracks. Yes, it’s just that simple. And you thought the lack of brain activity was somehow related.

In 2006, a research team led by neuroeconomist Gregory Berns picked 120 songs from MySpace pages, all by undiscovered musicians without record deals (slow day at the lab?). A group of 27 teenagers listened to the songs while their brain reactions were recorded through functional MRI machines, also rating the songs from one to five. Three years later, Berns was watching American Idol with his two young daughters (that’s always the excuse) when he recognized the song “Apologize” by One Republic — an obscure tune from 2006 that had become a hit.

“It occurred to me that we had this unique data set of the brain responses of kids who listened to songs before they got popular,” Berns said. “I started to wonder if we could have predicted that hit.”

Well, sort of. While most of the songs used in the study were flops and only three went on to sell more than 500,000 copies to become a certified smash, Berns’ team was able to predict about one-third of the songs that went on to sell more than a respectable 20,000 units. And busts were even clearer. About 90 percent of the songs that teens’ brains didn’t click with sold fewer than 20,000 copies. The teens’ ratings of the songs, unlike their brain waves, didn’t match up to future sales.

So, our cultural tastes are held hostage in the collective subconscious of adolescents. But you knew that already.

This Month in Academic Puns
A team of scientists from Japan, Mongolia and the U.S. studied the youngest and most complete skull for any species of tyrannosaur; the child dinosaur was 9 feet in length, 3 feet high and weighed 70 pounds. “This little guy may have been only 2 or 3, but it was no toddler,” said Ohio University paleontologist Lawrence Witmer, “although it does give new meaning to the phrase ‘terrible twos.’”

And Finally, Further Proof That We’re Running Out Of Latin
In the forests of Borneo, in the Lambir Hills in Sarawak, Malaysia, researchers from San Francisco State University discovered a strange new fungus. Shaped like a sea sponge, the bright orange mushroom would turn purple when dusted with a strong chemical base and smelled “vaguely fruity or strongly musty,” according to Dennis Desjardin and his colleagues in the journal Mycologia.

Its name: Spongiforma squarepantsii.

The Cocktail Napkin appears at the back page of each issue of Miller-McCune magazine, highlighting current research that merits a raised eyebrow or a painful grin.

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Matt Palmquist
A graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, Matt Palmquist, a former Miller-McCune staff writer, began his career at daily newspapers such as The Oregonian and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. In 2001, he became a staff writer at the SF Weekly in San Francisco, where he won several local and national awards. He also wrote a humorous current affairs column called "The Apologist," which he continued upon leaving the Weekly and beginning a freelance career.

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