Annotating the Smell of Lightning

by: Sanne Steen

One of Odeuropa’s goals is to extract relevant smell references in historical texts. An early step of this process is creating annotated texts for a language technology benchmark, i.e. we mark up texts with information which terms refer to smells to evaluate the performance of automatic tools on detecting smell references in texts. As an annotator, I read Dutch fragments of early modern texts about topics ranging from travel and science to poetry and theater. These sixteenth- to nineteenth-century text fragments were selected because they contained one or more smell words such as lucht (air), neus (nose), and rook (smoke/smelled). My task was to trace the smells and annotate anything related to these smells, such as quality, perceiver, location and smell source. Context is often very important for this task. For example, the small phrase “he smells” can mean that he emits smell, or that he is using his sense of smell. Another difficulty appeared once, in a scientific text describing the smell of electricity and lightning. This snippet described not only the actual smell but also falsified previous explanations about the origin of the smell which poses a new hypothesis about the true nature of this smell. As the argument proceeded, words recurred as very different smell elements:

The text fragment about lightning in the annotating tool with my annotations. The English translation is as follows:

4) In order to prove the smell of electricity, it is often argued that, in buildings and other places where lightning hit, even when it did not generate fire, people sense a sulphurous smell, often for a long time.
5) This is easy to explain, because in these cases the lightning did not bring the sulphur-like smell but found the sulphur at the place it struck.
6) In the ironwork of buildings, in building bricks, cement and chalk, sand, et cetera, everywhere are sulphur particles, which, where the lightning hits them, burn and as such spread the sulphur-like smell.

Let’s dive into this smell fragment. The text originates from an essay about peat vapour, which was published by Jan Sasse in the Vaderlandsche letteroefeningen in May 1861. Sasse writes that peat vapour was believed to be composed of dissolved lightning, because both the vapour and lightning smelled like sulphur. The smell of lightning was experienced in places where lightning hit, even when it did not catch fire (line 4). Therefore, people believed that the lightning itself carried the smell. Indeed, in his Natuurlyke historie van Holland (1769), which is also in the benchmark, the Dutch natural scientist Johannes le Francq van Berkhey cites his colleague Pieter van Musschenbroeck who characterises the smell of lightning as similar to that of burning sulphur. Van Musschenbroeck argued that the lightning is composed of sulphur: “Because the places where lightning hit spread a smell of burning sulphur, one can hardly doubt that the major substance of lightning is sulphur.” (“Dewyl de plaatsen van den Blixem geslagen eenen reuk van brandenden Zwavel van zich verspreiden, kan men naauwlyks twyfelen, of de voornaamste stof welke den Blixem maakt, zal Zwavel zyn”)

) Sasse contests this statement, however, arguing that the odour carrier is the place where the lightning hit (line 5). The lightning strike is instead the circumstance which exposes the smell (line 6).

Sasse was heading in the right direction when explaining the smell of lightning. He was correct in describing the lightning as a circumstance rather than odour carrier. However, he may be wrong when identifying the odour carrier and the smell source. In his book Nose Dive (2020), Harold McGee attributes the origin of the smell of lightning to ozone (O3), which is experienced as fresh and pungent. Ozone is created from dioxygen (O2) when the air is struck with electrical charge. Thus, if I were to annotate McGee, I would annotate lightning as circumstance, ozone as smell source and completely omit the odour carrier because the ozone does not exist before the lightning strikes the air.

Fortunately, I have never actually experienced the smell of lightning before. Nevertheless, the text fragments awakened my very first smell memory. Growing up, my family had a big bulky television. When we would sit down and watch a TV show, I greatly enjoyed getting as close to the screen as possible. Distinguishing the red, green and blue pixels, I was surprised by how these three colours created a moving colour image. I could feel the minimal sparks that came from the screen and, importantly, smell the warm material and hot dust. More than modern screens, older televisions were sensory feasts. The description of the smell of lightning made me think of this particular smell and brought me back to childhood. In Odeuropa, we want to make it easier for people to access such ‘smell memories’ which is why we are developing technologies to extract smell references from text and putting them into an openly accessible database.

MDK21 Recap

On 1 September 2021, Odeuropa and Polifonia co-organised the First International Workshop on Multisensory Data & Knowledge at the Language, Data and Knowledge (LDK) conference. The workshop was hybrid events, with about 20 online participants and 6 on location in Zaragoza, Spain. Six papers were presented from authors from various different time zones on different aspects of the analysis of music, smell, language, and art. As organisers, we were very happy to see the breadth of topics and the creativity with which the authors take on the different research questions.

Together with the other LDK workshops, we are now preparing the proceedings, but you can already find the pre-prints of the papers on the MDK website.  With the organising team, we are thinking about a follow-up workshop. Please get in touch with us if you have thoughts on this!

In memoriam: Albert van der Zeijden (1957-2021)

Photo courtesy of Kenniscentrum Immaterieel Erfgoed, Nederland.

We are deeply affected by the death of our highly esteemed colleague and member of the Odeuropa Advisory Board Albert van der Zeijden. Albert passed away suddenly at 30 July 2021.

He took part in the Odeuropa project due to his excellent expertise in the field of intangible cultural heritage and its policies.

Trained as a historian, Albert worked for almost 35 years in the field of intangible cultural heritage and everyday culture. In 2002 he obtained his PhD at the University of Amsterdam on Catholic identity and historical awareness. W.J.F. Nuyens (1823-1894) and his ‘national’ historiography (Hilversum 2002).

In recent years, he was head of the department Research and Development at the Dutch Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage, that is responsible for the implementation of the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in the Netherlands. Albert’s research focus was on ICH & sustainable tourism, ICH & (super)diversity, transnational ICH, inventorying mechanisms and ICH policies. Next to his work at the Centre, he was also working as a Research Fellow Heritage Studies at Utrecht University.

Albert was always enthusiast to cooperate and he built a large national and international network. He was active within the ICH-NGO Forum of UNESCO and was the coordinator of the Research Working Group. Since 2013, he was a member of the editorial board of the international internet magazine Heritage Alive, Voices and Practices, which is affiliated with the ICH-NGO Forum. Between 2014 and 2015 he was a member of the Evaluation Body of the Convention.

Albert was also a passionate editorial board member of the Flemish-Dutch journal Volkskunde for almost twenty years.

He has published dozens of articles and reviews and edited special issues and volumes.

We will miss Albert as an enthusiast and inspiring colleague.

Text written by Sophie Elpers.