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Over the ages, words a plenty have been wasted on the loveliness of the sense of smell.

  • To me, the smell of fresh-made coffee is one of the greatest inventions.— Hugh Jackman
  • Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.—Helen Keller
  • The best smell in the world is that man that you love.—Jennifer Aniston

noseBut what about inconsistently good smells—ones that please one person but make another feel sick?

For example, the smell of spring trees actually upsets some people. The Facebook page called “I hate the smell of those spring trees. They smell like dead fish” has 2,222 likes. Other people, however, love the smell of spring blossoms.

Stinky Trees

The real smell story about trees is that of the gingko tree. There are plenty of ginko trees in cities in the northeast. The leaves are brilliant in the fall, which is why urban planners like them. But when the berries fall and begin to rot … well. Here’s how the New Yorker magazine describes it: A combination of “old cheese and vomit.” The Washington Post said it has “strong notes of unwashed feet and Diaper Genie, with noticeable hints of spoiled butter.”

The culprit is the butyric acid in the fruit. It’s also in parmesan cheese—which some families call “feet cheese” because it smells so bad.

Here’s an interesting side note on the ginko tree. It’s the only member of the world’s oldest tree species. It’s been around for at least 190 million years, according to UC Berkeley scientists—so long that it’s considered a living fossil. For a species to survive that long it has to be hardy. This one is. Six trees growing right near the bomb site in Hiroshima survived the fire and radiation.

The smell survived too, one supposes.

The Smell of Death

Cadaver dogs are trained to recognize the smell of a decaying human body and to give an alert. These dogs are in heavy demand after disasters to find bodies in rubble, and they’re often used after kidnappings, as well. University studies in 1999 and 2009 showed that well-trained cadaver dogs perform excellently. Some perform unfailingly—they always get it right.But these dogs are expensive to train and maintain, which means that not every police department or emergency crew has access to them.

One of the first steps towards creating an artificial “smell of death” nose that could be made available universally was taken in 2009 when two scientists developed a profile of the chemicals that are released from decomposing bodies. Because people don’t donate their bodies for use in smell experiments, these scientists’ work was done primarily with dead pigs. The chemical composition of the air above the decomposing pigs was sampled every six to 12 hours over the course of a week. A practical application of this research is available yet.

 A Question

Why does vodka kill odors in clothing? Theatre companies have squirted vodka all over the actors’ clothing for years because they can’t wash the clothing every night. Sometimes there are scores of actors, and if you’ve ever sat up close in a Broadway performance you know that actors perspire profusely under those lights. Those clothes really need to be cleaned, but they can’t be. So the backstage crew heavily spritzes down the garments, after which they hang them to dry. Somehow the vodka removes the smell of perspiration.

Listeners, figure it out how this happens? What are the properties unique to vodka and to perspiration odor? If you know the answer, contact Rebecca Coffey.