The sense of smell is a fascinating study, and even studying the studies of olfactory action is a fascinating study!

But scientists are just beginning to understand more of the uses to which our sense of smell can be put.

In one research study published in the  journal of  Nature Neuroscience, scientists tracked humans’ sense of smell over a plot of grass, using a trail of chocolate oil.   Can you imagine being blindfolded and crawling, nose to the ground, across an open field, while sniffing for the trail of chocolate?

Incredibly, the research subjects did fantastically well– “as well” as dogs, the report claimed.  However, dogs were quicker.

Two thirds of the human subjects were able to follow the scent.  And even though they were slower than the animals were at tracking scents, the humans’ performance improved over time.

In other related tests, it was found that the humans required both of their nostrils to be working, in order to be able to track the chocolate oil scent.  No one quite knows why.

Person sniffing along the ground (copyright - Jess Porter, UC Berkeley)

Can someone explain why the humans’ performances improved over time?  More on that later, I hope.

Well, an even more interesting news tidbit about our remarkable sense called smell is that NASA is using this sense to train astronauts.

NASA actually contacted British chemist and smell-creator Steve Pearce to recreate the smell of outer space!

   What– space has a smell?  Apparently so.  Astronauts who have been on  spacewalks and have removed their helmets have reported that outer space has a distinctive smell.

It’s been called the “smell of space” by many, and that smell of space is described as “like seared steak,” “like hot metal” or “like arc welding on the motorbike.” These consistent descriptions lead others to conclude that the sensation is caused by some high-energy vibrations in particles which mix with air. NASA wanted to reproduce that odor to be useful in adding realism to the training programs on Earth.

Up until NASA called, Pearce had been recreating smells and flavors for restaurants, perfume manufacturers and even museums (the museum wanted the smell of Egyptian Queen Cleopatra’s hair).  He was more than happy to oblige.

An applied biochemistry graduate, Pearce had always been fascinated with smells.  At five years old, he kept the lid from a sardine can and he would smell it  regularly.  He was also fascinated by the odor of coins from a very young age.   So, recreating the smell of outer space was a welcome challenge.

NASA used the smell recreated by Pearce to make a more realistic simulation experience for astronauts on the earth.

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