When you spray an air freshener around a room or mist a cologne onto your body, where do you think that fragrance came from? Not so long ago, it might have come from a whale. I’m Jim Metzner and this is the Pulse of the Planet, presented by DuPont.
“Perfumery, of course, goes well back into the mists of history.”
Stuart Firestein of Columbia University is a leading expert on the sense of smell.
“Most of the early fragrances come from natural sources, extracts of flowers, roots, seeds of one sort or another, occasionally from animals. One of the major additives to perfumes for many years was ambergris, which comes from the, believe it or not, the large intestine of the sperm whale. So it’s one of the more important bases in perfume. Not used anymore, there are now substitutes for it.”
Today, most of the fragrances in everything from face cream to floor wax are synthetic imitations of the real thing. The history of odor reproduction has certainly had its failures, such as”Smell-O-Vision” — an attempt to spray fragrances into movie theaters. On the other hand, those perfumed advertising strips in fashion magazines have — for better or worse — been quite successful. The “scratch and sniff” technology was originally developed for more scientific purposes. It was used in a 1986 smell survey in National Geographic magazine.
“There was an attempt to take a wide-ranging survey of the different variations among the human population and their ability to smell certain molecules. “They needed a way to have a test that people could take. So they developed these microspheres that contained the odors and then painted them on the page, so you could scratch it and sniff it and report on whether you smelled this or didn’t smell it, found it pleasant or unpleasant, etc.”
But like virtually everything else in the 21st century, our sense of smell is about to go digital. We’ll hear more about that on our next program. Pulse of the Planet is presented by DuPont, bringing you the miracles of science, with additional support provided by the National Science Foundation.