Putting the perfume in planetary science

Why the Milky Way tastes like raspberries

If Mars had a perfume, what would its base notes be? Keren Lucy Bester talks to award-winning perfumer and astrobiologist Marina Barcenilla about the smell of space

Marina Barcenilla grew up with her gaze on the stars and her nose in just about everything under the sun. As a child, while most people would have simply admired the little flowers on the hedge near her nursery school, she had them almost up her nose.

“They smelled like frankincense,” she says. She still remembers the smell now.

Her earliest smell memory is the heat of the sun on an inflatable paddling pool – a combination of hot plastic and chlorine from the water. She remembers the vinegary smell of her grandfather’s photography lab and the smell of warm milk at her grandmother’s kitchen. 

So when the award-winning perfumer became interested in the stars, first getting her degree in planetary science at Birkbeck, University of London and then applying for her PhD in astrobiology, it was a call too enticing not to explore – and to share with the world. What does space smell like?

Marina has all the energy of someone who absolutely loves what she does and the contagious enthusiasm necessary to make it interesting for anybody she encounters. What does Mars smell like? Or the Milky Way? When you stop and think about that, or better yet experience it, it isn’t all that alien or far away anymore. 

Smell has a way of making the distant near. So when kids – and adults – experience Marina’s concoctions at AromAtom, her science education programme, they get an idea for the first time what it means to be made of stardust. This isn’t just a fanciful idea, a sweeping romantic cliché. It’s literally true. And there’s no way of coming into closer contact with that truth than by breathing in the very same molecules that originated out there. 

What would the Big Bang smell like, I ask, innocently.  It’s inconceivable she replies, with her science hat firmly on. I decide to ask Marina-the-perfumer a bit later in the conversation. She replies, “It would have a very subtle and light smell. A hot, metallic smell with whiffs of ozone, to convey a feeling of lightness of gases that don’t really smell, and of the heat and the energy that created that Big Bang.”  

I’m surprised – I thought it would have been dense, heavy, smouldering. 

“At the beginning you didn’t have stars and planets, it was just gas expanding,” Marina says. “It’s more like the smell of nothing, but with all the possibilities within it.”

Marina’s version is more scientifically accurate, yet still poetic. I find myself in the same position as any of the visitors to AromAtom – asking questions.  My curiosity piqued. 

Discovering the stars

Marina hasn’t quite been to space, but she’s been to some of the training for ExoMars, the mission to establish whether life has ever existed on the red planet. There’s a fake mission control, a Mars-like environment (the Atacama Desert), and a robot, which faces a number of challenges.

But until relatively recently, Marina was science-phobic. 

“I was really afraid of anything that was scientific or anything STEM. Because as a child, I was told I should just forget about anything scientific because I was too stupid for it. Those are the literal words of my teachers,” she says.

Her biggest dream was always to go to university, but various circumstances got in the way. And then, in her late 20s, Marina became interested in the environment, and environmental science grabbed her attention. She hoped she could cope. First, she had to do an introduction module encompassing a whole world of science, including astronomy. A star was born.

“This was fascinating, because I’ve always been interested in the sky, in the stars, because my mum used to talk about them,” she says. “I was really obsessed with mythology when I was a child as well. I read all the Greek and Roman myths and from that I knew a lot about the stars’ names and their backgrounds.”

She suddenly realised that she could do maths and physics. Her tutor encouraged her. Her path led to a first class honours degree in Planetary Science and Astronomy, and then a PhD.

“The person that was too stupid to do science,” she says.

It was Europa, a moon of Jupiter, that drew Marina to astrobiology specifically. A rocky moon, covered in a salty ocean thought to be up to 100 miles deep, with an icy shell that could be 15 miles thick. All this water makes it a good contender for evidence of life outside Earth. She was so intensely drawn to Europa “not because I believe in extraterrestrials or anything like that, but because of the possibilities, that something so distant can be so similar to the Earth in a way, and maybe there are weird things living in the ocean.”

Marina stayed fixated on Europa. Finding signs of life in environments similar to this ocean moon became her undergraduate research project. But her interest in scent was not left at the laboratory door.

“I had bits of the moon under the microscope,” Marina remembers. And in the middle of the class she blurted out, “I really wish I could smell this.”

When she had the samples for her Europa research, she smelled the samples before anything else. “I smell everything, I still do.”

It was this, sniffing at samples in labs, that made her wonder what the Moon or Mars smell like. 

“We know the chemistry, we have the same chemistry on Earth,” she says. “There’s no reason why we can’t, by analogy, understand what they smell like.”

What it smells like in space

When you eat raspberries, you’re eating the same molecules that are present in the milky way. This is the kind of science that Marina loves to offer up as a way into STEM.

“When you think about space, it feels like such an alien concept. It’s so big and so distant and completely unrelated to your everyday life,” Marina says. Instead, she likes to link space to everyday concepts — like eating raspberries. Suddenly, people can grasp big subjects.

So, how can the Milky Way taste like raspberries?

“Everything that’s on the Earth was from space dust, and the Earth and everything within it, including yourself, was made up from stuff that was in space first, and then it concentrated and condensed,” Marina explains. “That’s how we are linked to space.”

A molecule called ethyl formate is found in space – and more specifically in a gas cloud called Sagittarius B2, close to the centre of the Milky Way. It’s also found in a lot of fruit. “And in the case of raspberries, it contributes to the taste,” Marina says.

“Everything, every atom within us, within the raspberries that you eat – the boiled eggs, the broccoli – everything was in space first, before there was even a sun,” she says.

In AromAtom, Marina found a way to combine fragrance with planetary science and astronomy. It’s a way for people to explore space – through their noses. She’s created educational programmes exploring STEM subjects through smells, alongside a line of perfumes that takes a voyage into the universe. She calls it a fragrant encounter with space, where scent is our guide.

Getting kids engaged with science is tough. Marina’s solution?  The stinkier it is and the funnier it is, the more engaged they are. Hydrogen sulphide, which smells like rotten eggs, is a good place to start. She brings tangible items into her workshops – coins for the rust on Mars, for example.

For one of her AromAtom projects, Marina created an activity for Destination Space at the UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres, where kids can explore the smell of Mars. She created scents and a narrative about the history of Mars, linking it with the ExoMars mission.

For adults, she looks for a deeper connection. Moondust smells like spent gunpowder, she explains. But how do we know this, when you can’t smell in space, because there’s no atmosphere?

“What happens is, you’re out on the moon and the dust clings onto your suit,” Marina explains. “And then when you go into an atmosphere with oxygen, chemical reactions create those smells, and that’s what the astronauts smell.”

Perfume of the Universe

And where does an astrobiologist obsessed with smell go from here? Wearable perfumes encapsulating the scent of space, of course.

“The idea of these perfumes is that they start conversations,” Marina says. Each fragrance comes with a story, detailed on her website. 

One such story begins: “I imagine coming back to Earth after centuries of travelling through our galaxy. My first glimpse of home is of a distant blue marble suspended in space; breathtaking, familiar, yet alien at the same time.” This perfume? Ground Control. It’s Marina’s personal favourite. She describes it as the smell of Canadian forests full of hemlock and fir trees and wet soil.

“Ground Control is everything the Earth is to me,” she says.

I’m wearing this very scent as I talk to Marina. After our dizzying conversation, imagining the noxious smells of faraway moons and planets, Ground Control really does smell comforting.  It smells of the return to Earth, it smells of coming home.

In the world of scent, something has changed over recent years. Covid-19 has had a very real impact on how we view olfaction. 

“Because of the anosmia [loss of smell] that COVID has, people have started to realise for the first time that the sense of smell is really important,” Marina says. How it affects the brain, and the information we get from scent, is a hot topic.

“Before, when you asked people which of the five senses they would prefer to lose, everybody said smell and now that’s changing,” Marina says. “Because when you lose smell you don’t just lose smell, you lose taste as well.”

With a sense of smell temporarily gone, people suffering Covid-19 symptoms were forced to confront how important it is.

Marina has always understood the importance of smell. Her fixation with fragrance has led her to look at the universe in unique ways.  Now she hopes that people will use her perfumes as a vehicle to talk about space, and to keep asking more questions.

What’s so good about this?

Marina Barcenilla knows all too well how intimidating STEM subjects can be. But she’s found a way for both children and adults to navigate the universe, through a sense of discovery and a sense of smell.

Meet the writers

Marina was talking to the unquenchably curious Keren Lucy Bester, who is smell obsessed.  She’s following her nose and studying a philosophy degree, investigating what makes smell resistant to digitisation. You can follow her on @kerenbester.

Katie Dancey-Downs writer profile

When she’s not being a beaver holding back the rivers, Katie Dancey-Downs is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for human stories, nature and culture. She’s travelled the world to report on issues such as vegan activism in Toronto, regenerative farming in India, and the destruction of Sacred Natural Sites in Kenya. She can usually be found with her head in a book, stomping through the forest, or wishing she looked cool on a surfboard.

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