Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Something in the Air

Via Gizmodo

My recent inquiries from online journalists are beginning to form a pattern and it’s not good.

First came an email from Eric Spitznagel at Vice Tonic asking about the science behind the age-old saying “he who smelt it dealt it.” His starting point was the idea that laws of gas diffusion and the concentration gradient of odor dispersion would invariably indict the smeller as the dealer. (From the published piece it appears he got this working hypothesis from an engineering professor at the University of Colorado.) My response was to distinguish between models that describe the behavior of ideal gases, and the more complicated turbulent currents and plumes found in real life. The non-ideal distribution of scented air streams is the basis for the “casting” behavior which many animals species use to localize the source of a smell (they zig-zag back and forth through the odor plume in ever-shorter tacks until they reach it). Given these atmospheric vagaries it is entirely possible that an emission from the guilty party might curl up an innocent person’s nostrils first.

Next heard from was Daniel Kolitz at Gizmodo who was putting together a “GIZ Asks” installment on the legitimate if somewhat feculent question “Why does dog poop smell bad to us but good to dogs?” Kolitz collates answers from a crack team of dog specialists and smell researchers including, beside yours truly, Alexandra Horowitz, Don Wilson, Peter Hepper, Cat Warren, and Charles “I’m publishing as fast as I can” Spence (I kid, I kid). What’s interesting is that several of the experts blithely assume that all human odor responses are cultural, while other take the (correct) view that certain smells or categories of smell are inherently (biologically) offensive. Click over to read the whole thing, but here here’s the pungent part of my answer:
Dogs don’t approach shit as an aesthetic experience—they treat it as a source of social information, like an olfactory Instagram. It answers a lot of questions: Who left it? How recently? Is the pooper healthy? We are able to extract similar information. The lingering cloud in the office restroom tells you who had lunch at P.F. Chang’s. Plumbing and ventilation rob us of the social signals in feces and leave us with mere disgust.
So where is this latest journo-trend heading? What follows farts and dog poop? I could make an educated guess, but I’ll take the lazy way out and just wait for the next email from an inquiring mind.

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