The First Yardstick for Measuring Smells

Carl Zimmer in Discover:

ScreenHunter_02 May. 21 10.32 Your nose is a paradox. In some ways the human sense of smell is astonishingly precise. For example, natural gas companies add a smelly molecule called n-butyl mercaptan to natural gas, which is odorless by itself, so that people can sniff gas leaks. All it takes is one n-butyl mercaptan molecule for every 10 billion molecules of methane to do the trick. To put this precision in perspective, imagine you are standing in front of two Olympic-size swimming pools. One of them contains a grand total of three drops of n-butyl mercaptan, and the other has none. Your nose could tell the difference.

But don’t get too smug, because in other ways your sense of smell is practically useless. To judge for yourself, find someone to help you run a simple experiment. Close your eyes while your partner raids your refrigerator and then holds different foods under your nose. Try to name each scent. If you’re like most people, you’ll bomb. In a number of studies, scientists have found that people tested on items in their own kitchens and garages give the wrong answer at least half the time. And as bad as we normally are at identifying smells, we can easily be fooled into doing worse. If orange food coloring is added to cherry-flavored soda, for example, people are more likely to say that it smells like oranges.

Noam Sobel of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and his colleagues have been puzzling over this paradox for the past several years. What has been missing in the science of smell, they argue, is a meaningful way to measure it—an olfactory yardstick. Now they have built one.

More here.