Space Smells & the
Scent of Being Human
Will the odor of outer space ever be defined? For fifty years, astronauts have been at loss to precisely describe this overlooked angle of interstellar travel, or even tell us whether it’s good or bad. And at least for a while, those who took a hike out there are the only ones capable of offering us any clues about it, as no one is about to follow them anytime soon.
Something utterly unthinkable here on Earth, to be sure. Our sense of smell is a crucial part of how we, and every organism, experience life and, as it turns out, even plants sniff each other. While some inscribe the nose within the sensual realm, others link the olfactory sense to youth or old age. As for us, we couldn’t live in a world without the scent of old books.
Compared to other species, though, our own capabilities in this department are rather meek and limited. While every animal could theoretically find their way through life by using only their noses, we have a considerably harder time when deprived of any of our senses, smell included. Pheromones? Quantum physics? we’re yet to even find out where or how come about either of them.
Some studies show that a few among us do have a ‘nose for directions,’ and point to a few inconclusive studies about the amount of iron inside the tip of our nose. We honestly couldn’t tell. Most of us would like to think of ourselves as natural GPS masters, but the reality is that we act exactly like bugs coming out the woodwork, when we momentarily lose our bearings.
Many believe that the so-called ‘chemistry’ between couples, or sexual compatibility, comes from the way each one smells to the other. But then we get into this slippery, no pun intended, territory of fixations, fetishes and obsessions that people develop along their lives, and the whole issue gets lost in foggy assumptions and misty, or rather, wishful thinking.
JUST LIKE TEEN SPIRIT
Talking about assumptions, we tend to interchange the word smell with odor, as in bad smell (or bad odor). That’s because, apart from any linguistic consideration, let’s face it, our bodies are runaway stinkers, given the right conditions. Which, in many cases, are simply temperature, emotional stress, physical exertion or any combination of the above, plus many things more.
It’s with a certain level of distrust, then, that many greeted a recent podcast by the Chemical Heritage magazine, which argues something that’s actually quite true: sweat per se doesn’t smell. It’s the bacteria living in certain parts of the body that, when in contact with perspiration, oxidates, giving up that unpleasant aroma we dare not to spell out: B.O.
In Distillations, the podcast series, Josh Kurz, from public radio program Radiolab, brings us up to date with what’s up with that natural reaction of the body to cool off when faced with a temperature rise, and how French bacteriologist Louis Pasteur was the one to study and explain the two kinds of sweat, the smelly one, and the other one.
It’s a completely separate issue, though, when one needs to let their buddy, or loved one (with extra care) that they stink big time. Lest that not to be read in any other way but as a friendly reminder, there’s now the Deodograms, a service designed with the exact purpose to tell, anonymously, the perfume-challenged one the acrid news. We say, good luck with all of that. More or less the same we’d say to those seeking to sniff the Internet.
We’re compelled to associate sweat with being young and wild, which is not neither accurate nor too far from the truth. The fact is, strenuous physical activities, such as sports and exercising, do belong to a certain demographics. But it can be taken also as a way of people of a ‘certain age’ to get something back from their lost years: we stunk big time then, they would say.
THAT NURSING HOME WHIFF
Yet, another study, focused on what’s informally known as ‘old people smell,’ came up with some interesting conclusions. After conducting a controlled experiment with a group of middle aged and senior citizens, Monell Chemical Senses Center’s Johan Lundström, who studies human and animal body odors and how the brain responds to smells, set up a blind testing board.
Guess what? without being informed the age of the subjects, another group of volunteers sniffed their well-worn garments and rated the scent according to pleasantness, and the elderly fared better than the younger.
Which, granted, it’s just fair with your old uncle Bob. The volunteers did identify, though, ‘a characteristic “old people smell,” but not because of the aroma’s intensity or offensiveness, but because of its uniqueness compared to the body odors of younger people,’ the study showed.
Science has known too that the elderly do produce an organic compound known as 2-nonenal in their sweat and skin. The chemical may be an indication of the body aging process, a biological signature of the natural passing of time. But the compound has also been linked to the scent of cucumbers and aged beer, according to researchers, and the whole theory gets a bit askew.
THE SECRET CRIME OF PLANTS
Now, hold your anti-New Age feelings for a moment, just so you can appreciate a completely surprising approach to smell in nature, by botanist Daniel Chamovitz, in his book What a Plant Knows. Studying a parasite, the doddler vine, he observed how it goes after tomatoes: at first, it differentes it from other species, and then, slowly, wraps itself around it and strangle it.
Plants do ‘know when their fruit is ripe, when their neighbor has been cut by a gardener’s shears (channeling Steve Wonder now), or when the neighbor is being eaten by a ravenous bug; they smell it,’ he writes in his book. From that to using the same abilities to getting closer and closer to its favorite tomato is, well, a matter of growing a stringy, murderous, vine.
The experiment’s conclusions were corroborated by Penn State University’s biologist Consuelo De Moraes, who placed different plants next to the doddler and saw it that it’d only lean when there was a nice, juicy tomato next door. There are still many questions about the behavior of plants (would you lay off Steve Wonder already?) but this is certainly an intriguing development.
A TASTE OF MEAT & METAL
Astronauts, those rocket scientists inside an athlete’s body, who we may not see much of in the next few years, are highly trained to be precise in their analysis and descriptions of all things technical and scientific. They may not fare that well when it comes to such a subjective sense as our olfactory perception, though.
Either that, or the interstellar smell – which by the way can’t possibly be experienced in space by a human – is simply beyond our ability as a species to capture it into a coherent description. But since the great majority, and we mean over seven billion of us, will never experience it by ourselves, we’ll have to trust their impression.
And what they say is that space, or what’s left of it when they come back to the safety of the International Space Station, or the shuttles, when they were still flying, smells a lot like steak. Not chicken, please. Meat and metal, no potatoes. It’s acrid, has some welding fume ‘notes,’ if you’d prefer, and it clings like hell to their helmets, spacesuits, boots and tools.
NASA has been trying to recreate it down on the ground, so in the future that’ll be something else, among the very few things, that would seem familiar for those who’ll be traveling out there. But it’s unlikely that they’ll get that absolutely right, no matter how brilliant those folks really are.
THAT MUSTY OLD FEELING
Part of us, of course, are very jealous about this business of things smelling funny up there, that we’ll never be able to experience ourselves. We all know that smells have the power to elicit memories, and for astronauts, old age may be reminiscing among themselves, about how their helmets used to smell. We’re hating so much their behinds right now.
But we’ll always have Earth, with all its chaotic, cacophonous, erratic, noisy scents, if you allow us to be so absurd in our own description of smelling the world. There are, in fact, many people whose noses should be donated to science, if at all possible, just by their ability of distinguish a wider palette of aromas than most of us ever could.
But as we said before, we’re just happy that we can still get our fix by just wandering through the city and walking into an old library or antique bookstore. That’s right, we’re insane that way and do that often: just head straight to the basement and pace around, taking deep breaths. We actually forgot what kind of remembrances such vanity elicits in us.
There’s probably none, at this point. Just a memory of a distant reality, not in the past, but almost parallel to our contemporary existence. We sniff it and we’re transported to this impalpable place we couldn’t even touch. Or describe it, for that matter. Maybe that’s our kinship with astronauts. And, of course, there are the old books too.
Sometimes just a basement would do it. Or even the powder of brick and concrete, which friends believe it may be some nutritional deficiency. We don’t really care; we just love it. But it’s quite an added dimension when there’s old paper, pages, dried ink involved. It really drives us gaga. And now that we brought you here, dear reader, hopefully you’ll enjoy it too.
* Two Scents
* Clean Noses