Saturday, November 29, 2008

Scratch Me, Sniff Me

People climbed aboard the scent marketing train with its December 1st “Sexiest Man Alive!” double issue. The move paid off: despite tough times for print advertising the magazine scored Emporio Armani Diamonds on cover 4 and full page ads for Christina Aguilera Inspire, Aramis Mustang Blue for Men, YSL L’Homme, Avon’s Patrick Dempsey Unscripted, Usher’s UR, and Clinque’s Happy.  Not to mention Hormel Chili and Chapstick. (Well, they’re aromatic too, aren’t they?)

Hugh Jackman may be the SMA! but scratch-and-sniff opps in the “Sexy Scents” story are limited to Chace “Freshly Cut Grass” Crawford, Taye “Vanilla, Chocolate, Sandalwood and Musk” Diggs, Chris “A Day at the Beach” Meloni, and Michael “YSL L’Homme” Phelps.

Jeez.  Talk about your extremely safe scent selections: cut grass and vanilla.  Wow.  No surprise that Aqua Boy continues to reach unashamedly for endorsement gold.  But Mr. Law & Order’s choice is truly lame—it brings to mind Seinfeld's retort to Kramer’s idea for Beach: The Cologne:
You think people are going to pay $80 to smell like
dead fish and seaweed? That’s why they shower.
The scratch-and-sniff placements were interesting: clavicle, armpit and nipple. When I did the National Geographic Smell Survey back in the back in the day, we got tons of reader mail including letters from women who described with anatomical precision where they found their husband/BF’s irresistible natural scent. All the same places. Hmm.

Puzzling that People didn’t trumpet the scent feature. Larry Flynt wouldn’t have missed that bet. He splayed “First Time Ever Scratch’N’Sniff Centerfold” in gigantic letters across the August, 1977 issue of Hustler. The cover image was a female hand with pubic hair peeking between the fingers. A Surgeon General type white box read:
Warning: To be smelled in the privacy of your home.
Not to be smelled by minors.
Now that was inspired, if supremely vulgar, scent marketing. P.T. Barnum would have been proud.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Future of Farting

The Smoking Gun reports that a twelve-year old boy was arrested for farting in school. If ever there was a case where smell and society collide, this is it. Naturally, I began to sniff around a bit.

On November 4th, teacher D.C. Carden at the Spectrum Jr./Sr. High School in Stuart, Florida wrote the kid up after he “continually disrupted his classroom environment by breaking wind and shutting off several computers.” Warren F. Pettway of the Martin County Sheriff Office questioned the little stinker at the scene, then arrested him on a charge of “Disruption of a School Function.” Sounds like a pretty extreme response to cutting the cheese.

But after Googling a little beyond the headlines, I’m inclined to give the teacher and officer Pettway some slack. The Spectrum School houses the Martin County School District’s “alternative education” program for grades 9 through 12. Alternative in this case meaning “alternative to expulsion.” The school made news last month when a 15-year old student was pepper-sprayed by a sheriff’s officer for being loudly disruptive during a lunchroom detention, refusing to calm down after being removed, and then physically threatening the officer. The Spectrum School doesn’t sound like a tea party.

Still, the story forces us to rethink the social implications of farting. Sociologists like Erving Goffman treat it as a failure of our “performance of self.” In other words, farting is a social error like yawning while the boss is talking, or leaving the men’s room with an unzipped fly: one has failed to convincingly act out the role of attentive subordinate or well-groomed professional. To Goffman, farting belongs to the subspecies of performance failure known as self-contamination. The bad impression of self-contamination can be repaired by an apology or other form of excuse making: “Oops, silly me—I spilled soup on my shirt.”

But how well does Goffman’s theory apply to the venting of intestinal gas? Not very well, I believe. First, there is no socially acceptable way to apologize for breaking wind. “Pardon me for farting” is not a phrase found in etiquette books—and in the absence of social norms creative apology making can go dreadfully wrong. For example, a guy who stank up a subway car on New York’s R line apologized to fellow subway passengers via the “Missed Connections” section of Craigslist—a section usually used for romantic near-misses. Dude, talk about “eeeuuuww.”

Goffman’s theory also fails for a second reason: it assumes that all gas is passed reluctantly or by accident. It doesn’t account for the deliberate farter. Here’s a classic example, related by Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye:
. . . then all of a sudden this guy sitting in the row in front of me,
Edgar Marsalla, laid this terrific fart. It was a very crude thing to
do, in chapel and all, but it was also quite amusing. Old Marsalla.
He damn near blew the roof off.
Farting for effect is time-honored adolescent tradition. Apology was probably the last thing on Edgar Marsalla’s mind. And this brings us back to the twelve-year old in Stuart, Florida. When does deliberate farting cross the line from low comedy to misdemeanor?

Two months ago in South Charleston, West Virginia, police were booking Jose Antonio Cruz on a DUI charge. While being fingerprinted, the suspect “lifted his leg and passed gas loudly” on Patrolman T.E. Parsons. The cops promptly added a charge of battery to the criminal complaint against Cruz. At the request of the county prosecutor a judge later dropped the battery charge.

But imagine that the charge stuck and Cruz was sentenced to jail time. Do you know what they do to deliberate farters in prison? Brian Bruggeman of Hershey, Nebraska found out the hard way. His repeated flatulence in the Lincoln County Jail caused his cellmate Jesse Dorris, of North Platte, to take exception. The two came to blows and Dorris was injured. Bruggeman is now charged with felony assault—he’s looking at five years if convicted.

It isn’t hard to see where all these cases are leading. No doubt the inventive minds of the American bar are already at work. At a minimum, deliberate farting is a private tort. If the noxious emission is on a grand enough scale it might constitute a public nuisance. Think of it—injunctions, monetary damages, even punitive damages. This could be the next frontier for mass tort litigation. The B&M Baked Beans company needs to review its product liability exposure immediately.

Deliberate farting implies reckless disregard for public health. New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg, who probably has never released an audible one, may institute a city-wide ban on indoor farting and prohibit restaurants from serving flatulegenic foods. There could be rulemaking at the federal level: if workers let loose on the assembly line, OSHA could declare an unsafe work environment and shut the plant down. Comment unfavorably on a coworker’s gassiness and you might find yourself charged with workplace harassment. And don’t forget the implications for global warming—expect the California Air Resources Board to monitor the VOC levels in rectal emissions on a household by household basis. Al Gore will urge you to reduce your carbon fartprint.

We’re doomed, I tell you, doomed.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Odorprints on a Wanted Poster

In Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi novel Fahrenheit 451, the fire department uses a hellish Mechanical Hound to track a person down based on his individually unique body odor. The “sensitive capillary hairs in the nylon-brushed nostrils” of the Hound pick up the scent. Its electronic brain is programmed to recognize ten thousand individual BO profiles. After cornering its prey the Hound dispatches it with a lethal injection from a retractable fang.

I thought of the Mechanical Hound the other day when I spotted a juicy headline on Drudge: ‘Odorprinting’ will identify people. I clicked on the item with my usual mix of emotions. Would this be a story about real technology or some type of National Enquirer nonsense?

The linked report from the Telegraph quotes Jae Kwak, a scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. According to Kwak, genetically-based body odors are as unique as fingerprints; he thinks it may be possible to build devices that identify people based on their BO.

Intriguing. But in world of science-by-press-release it pays to be skeptical of media stories. Kwak could be a quack. Far better to examine the actual study that brought him to the Telegraph’s attention: in this case a paper in the open-access, online journal PLoS ONE.

The needle on my Bogosity Meter twitched as soon as I began to read: the experiment has nothing to do with humans—it’s about two strains of highly inbred mice.

I’m very familiar with these mice: I studied them years ago when I was on the faculty of the Monell Center. Originally bred for cancer research, the strains are genetically identical except for a set of genes that controls immune response. These so-called MHC genes are associated with a strain-specific scent. Mice can smell the difference and prefer to mate with mice of the other strain (a case of “opposites attract”). In addition, the mousey BO is distinct enough that humans can smell the difference between the two strains. (An experimental result of mine that I published here.)

It is widely believed that diet alters body odor. If so, can diet obscure MHC-linked BO differences? This is the question Kwak and his colleagues set out to answer using the two mouse strains and two kinds of commercially produced mouse chow. They trained “sensor” mice to recognize the scent of urine from mice with a specific combination of MHC type and diet. Then they let them choose between mice differing in various combinations of genes and diet. The result? The sensor mice failed to pick out the MHC-linked scent. In a direct match-up, diet-related BO overwhelmed the differences in genetically-based BO.

Other mice were trained to recognize a particular MHC scent from mice fed the same diet. Once trained, they were able to pick out that MHC scent from mice fed another type of diet. In other words, the genetically-linked BO signal persists amid stronger dietary signals and properly trained mice can find it. Chemical analysis revealed forty-nine molecules in mouse urine that vary with diet and MHC type. From these, Kwak and colleagues were able to construct a statistical model that predicts MHC type as accurately as the trained sensor mice. Pretty cool stuff.

Kwak et al. go on to claim “it should be possible to develop a detector to identify individual odortypes that can ignore environmental perturbations such as diet variation.” Once again the needle on my Bogosity Meter bounces a bit. Why? Because the mice in question weren’t recognized as individuals (Bob, Jane, John, Wendy, etc.) but as members of genetically identical groups (the Smith-family clones versus the Jones-family clones). Clonal sibship is one thing, individual identity is another. A device to “detect individual odorprints in humans” is several leaps of logic away from the results of this study.

In Fahrenheit 451, the fugitive fireman Guy Montag successfully evades the Mechanical Hound by swapping clothes with an old man, dousing himself with whiskey, and floating down a river. If pursued by trained mice from Monell, he could simply have popped a breath mint and taken it easy.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Air Pollution and the Scent of Digital Snapdragons

“Ozone is killing off the sweet smells of summer,” cried the Times of London last April, joined by a chorus of media voices ranging from ABC News to the Drudge Report. What caused the commotion? A claim that air pollution is destroying the scent of flowers. The Times painted a dire picture of “bees struggling to catch a whiff of the fading flower smells.” According to the Guardians science correspondent, “the lack of scent means [bees] cannot find the flowers, which provide the nectar needed for food. In turn this affects the plants, which are less likely to be fertilised.”

Sound the alarm, it’s an eco-apocalypse!  Manmade air pollution is destroying flower scent, frustrating bees, and threatening plant life.  The entire ecosystem, or at least the decorative border in Grandma’s garden, could be on the verge of collapse.

This unsettling prospect was based on a University of Virginia study funded in part by the National Science Foundation and publicized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, solidly respectable institutions all. Does this mean we should be worried? Let’s take a closer look at the study.

The fact that ozone and related air pollutants are highly reactive molecules is textbook chemistry. The fact that ozone destroys molecules commonly found in floral scent—such as linalool, beta-ocimene, and beta-myrcene—is also well known. Professor Jose Fuentes and two graduate students in the UVA department of environmental sciences looked at how these chemical reactions play out on a large scale. They claim that the ozone in polluted air drastically shrinks the distance snapdragons can broadcast their scent, potentially making it harder for honey bees to find them.

This conclusion should be taken with a large pinch of salt. For starters, no flowers or bees or fragrances were observed in the course of the study. The entire project was a computer simulation, based on a hypothetical one cubic meter patch of garden containing exactly ten hypothetical snapdragon plants. Instead of measuring actual scent production, the research team keypunched in some estimates. And since one can’t measure wind and temperature above an imaginary garden patch, they input historical microclimate data from the university’s experimental farm.

Computer modeling is a useful scientific method and there’s a certain digital elegance in blowing mathematically simulated pollution-laden breezes over virtual snapdragons. But in doing so the research team left out some basic biology.

For example, the statistical air currents in Modelville, USA spread odors evenly through space, while in the real world of backyards and alfalfa fields scent travels in discrete plumes. (Light an incense stick outdoors and watch what happens.) Insects use the physics of odor dispersion to their advantage—they home in on an odor source by flying zigzag patterns back and forth across the plume.

Here’s another difference: digital snapdragons in Modelville release a single, mathematically invariant scent; in the real world flowers vary the blend of their perfume. Fragrance chemists have time-sampled floral scents and find that the mix of components varies through the course of the day. Bees take this in stride and respond quickly to changes in a target scent. They have an impressive array of odor receptors and are better able to learn about smells than either fruit flies or mosquitoes. It’s more than likely they could find their way to snapdragons on a smoggy day. In any case, scientists would do well to test real-life bees on some living flowers before sounding the next eco-alarm.

To be fair, Professor Fuentes and colleagues were careful to label the bee theory as speculation. The folks at the UVA press office weren’t so restrained: they stated flat out that air pollution was “inhibiting” the ability of insects to find flowers. The world media took this more vivid but less accurate summary and ran with it.

Science relies on skepticism. Without it, experimental results go unchallenged, theories go unquestioned, and speculation runs rampant. The sounding of an ecological alarm is no reason to suspend skepticism.  Some scientific scenarios just don’t pass the sniff test. In the case of Professor Fuentes’ flowers, just ask yourself: who are you going to believe, a computer-based Lagrangian diffusion model or your own lying nose?