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Smelly Research: Smelly Objects

The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research, now in all-pdf form. Get a subscription now for only $25 a year!

Research about smells and things that smell
compiled by Dirk Manley, Improbable Research staff

Smelly Socks for Malaria control
“Sugar-Fermenting Yeast as an Organic Source of Carbon Dioxide to Attract the Malaria Mosquito Anopheles gambiae,” Renate C. Smallegange, Wolfgang H. Schmied, Karel J. van Roey, Niels O. Verhulst, Jeroen Spitzen, Wolfgang R. Mukabana, and Willem Takken, Malaria Journal, vol. 9, 2010, pg. 292. The authors, at Wageningen University, The Netherlands, and the University of Nairobi, Kenya, report:

“Human foot odour was released from nylon socks (40 Den, 100% polyamide, HEMA, The Netherlands) worn by WHS (laboratory experiments) or KJvR (semi-field and field experiments) for 12 h prior to the experiments…”

Scratch ‘n’ Scratch ‘n’ Scratch ‘n’ Sniff
“Scratch Density Differentiates Microsmic from Normosmic and Anosmic Subjects on the University of Pennsylvania Smell Identification Test,” R.L. Doty, A. Genow, and T. Hummel, Perceptual and Motor Skills, vol. 86, no. 1, February 1998, pp. 211-216. The authors are at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, Philadelphia.

Urban Smellscapes
“Smelly Maps: The Digital Life of Urban Smellscapes,” Daniele Quercia, Rossano Schifanella, Luca Maria Aiello, and Kate McLean, Ninth International AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media 2015. The authors explain:

One of the authors of this paper has ventured out in the urban world and conducted “smellwalks” in a variety of cities: participants were exposed to a range of different smellscapes and asked to record their experiences. As a result, smell-related words have been collected and classified, creating the first dictionary for urban smell. Here we explore the possibility of using social media data to reliably map the smells of entire cities.

Detail from the study “Smelly Maps: The Digital Life of Urban Smellscapes.”

The Smell of Touched or Pickled Coins
“The Two Odors of Iron When Touched or Pickled: (Skin) Carbonyl Compounds and Organophosphines” (article in German), Dietmar Glindemann, Andrea Dietrich, Hans-Joachim Staerk, and Peter Kuschk, Angewandte Chemie International Edition, 2006, vol. 118, no. 42, pp. 7006–7009. The authors, at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and Universität Leipzig, report:

Humans are perplexed by the metallic odor from touching iron metal objects, such as tools, cutlery, railings, door handles, firearms, jewelry, and coins. Phosphorus-containing iron which is under acid attack gives rise to a different “carbide” or “garlic” odor which metallurgists have attributed to the gas phosphine (PH3); however, we found that purified PH3 at breathable dilution has hardly any odor.... Ironically, the iron odor on skin contact is a type of human body odor.

Seven human subjects sensed an immediate “musty” metallic odor when their palm skin touched a ferrous (Fe2+) solution or metallic iron (ultra pure iron powder, steel, and cast iron plates) moistened with artificial sweat (pH 4.7 and 0.7 N chloride). The metallic odor was recognized on both the skin and on the metal plates. The test subjects agreed that this metallic odor was similar to that encountered in their life experience on smelling sweaty hands in contact with everyday iron objects.

The Surpassing Smell of Wet Cardboard
“Odor-Active Compounds in Cardboard,” Michael Czerny and Andrea Buettner, Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, vol. 57, no. 21, 2009, pp. 9979–9984. (Thanks to Mary Beckman for bringing this to our attention.) The authors, at Fraunhofer-Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging in Freising, Germany, and University Erlangen-Nuernberg, report:

The odor-active compounds of cardboard were identified by aroma extract dilution analysis and HRGC-MS analysis. In total, 36 compounds were detected with medium to high intensities during HRGC−olfactometry. The highest odor intensities were evaluated for vanillin, (E)-non-2-enal, (R/S)-γ-(R/S)-δ-decalactone, p-anisaldehyde, 3-propylphenol, and a woody-smelling unknown compound. Most of the identified compounds were described as odoractive cardboard constituents for the first time. Sensory experiments demonstrated that extensive release of odor-active compounds occurred upon moistening of the cardboard.

Detail from the study “Odor-Active Compounds in Cardboard.”


This article is republished with permission from the March-April 2016 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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