Links to the original articles on "NZZ Folio" are included in each post. Source: NZZ Folio.

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January 1, 2009

"Purification" By Luca Turin

"Purification" By Luca Turin

The idea that adding something can take something away is magic. Air fresheners rely on this, for example in toilets where bad smells in a small space will be somehow subtracted by good smells coming from a spray can with a picture of the Alps on it. It works with spirits, i.e. metaphysical farts, as well. My mother lived in a haunted flat for a while, where strange noises, sensations and moved objects made her life miserable until she used a Lampe Berger, that wonderful flameless burner invented a century ago, and filled it with a Patricia de Nicolai scent. Things calmed down instantly.

This is the rationale behind Papier d’Arménie, blotting paper steeped in benzoin resin you find in the form of green and yellow booklets in French Tabacs. The booklet says “burn it in hotel rooms where unclean individuals have sojourned before you”, a clearly magical instruction. But to paraphrase Arthur C Clarke, any magic will sooner or later will become indistinguishable from technology.

An improvement on Papier d’Arménie, closer to real effectiveness, is Ozium, a mysterious fluid in a striped spray can of pure ‘fifties design, three shades of light blue, with the cursive inscription “Glycolized”. According to Ozium’s makers “Each use will release a pleasant fragrance that kills odor-causing bacteria and converts smoke particles into clean, fresh air”. We are still close to magic, but in my experience Ozium works rather well.

Then, without much fuss, after centuries of rituals there came technology. Procter and Gamble’s Febreze contains cyclodextrins, cup-shaped molecules that actually attach to odors. Oddly, as a sort of homage to past magic, P&G still puts fragrance in it, which must complicate things. The stuff works so well guys in the US spray their clothes with it instead of washing them, a fine example of unintended consequences of both magic and technology.