I apologize for the shock that is likely to accompany my next sentence. Suggestions have been made over the years – and I hope you are sitting down – that I am prone to exaggeration! This is something that I’ve been reluctant to mention in my writings up to now. With a revelation of this magnitude, who can tell how my millions of outraged and grief-stricken followers around the world might react? Burning down buildings? Overturning cars? Throwing themselves from bridges? Obviously, I wouldn’t want to be responsible for such tragic consequences – particularly if they came with any kind of financial liability.
So what, you may wonder, has prompted my change of heart now? The fact is, I’ve come across a statistic so mind-blowingly improbable, I fear being accused of making it up. I therefore swear to you, hand on heart, that whatever wild exaggerations, outrageous fictions and hyperbolic flights of fancy I may (allegedly) have been responsible for in the past, what follows is a genuine scientific claim made by actual scientists, some of whom may even wear white coats.
“According to research published in the highly-respected journal Science on March 21, 2014, humans can discriminate over a trillion different odors.”
It may be worth rereading that last sentence to make sure you’ve fully taken it in. That’s trillion with a T rather than million with a typo. Unsurprisingly, this claim was attacked by other scientists, who were themselves then attacked, so the issue has not yet been fully resolved.
This means that while the world’s foremost experts on olfactory transduction remain locked in the laboratory, hurling electron microscopes and mass spectrometers at each other, the rest of us have been left with no option but to wait excitedly to discover whether we really can distinguish a trillion different smells or have to make do with the previously accepted estimate of about 10,000.
As someone blessed with a fairly generous supply of nose, I would love the one trillion figure to be true. Given that I can’t even lift logs or shell peanuts with it, I’d like the satisfaction of knowing the hulking great presence on my face is good for something. And yet, it’s uncomfortably obvious that the prowess of my proboscis falls some way short of the lofty claims being made for it.
Now, I’m not complaining that I can’t do anything with my nose. I’m perfectly capable of distinguishing between, say, a 2003 Lafite-Rothschild Bordeaux and a bucket of pig manure – a skill that comes in very handy at dinner parties. I’d even be prepared to accept that I can differentiate a couple of hundred other smells, perhaps even a thousand or so – but a trillion?
This shortfall in scent discrimination is deeply worrying, for I can’t help noticing it means there are 999,999,999,000 smells available to everybody else that are not available to me. The smell of victory, of success, of defeat, of fear – I’ve often heard people talk about such things, but assumed they were merely using figures of speech. (Admittedly, the last of these odors always seemed somewhat more plausible to me than the others, but even in that case, I was never convinced it was actually fear people were smelling.)
Yet perhaps I have been mistaken my entire life. Perhaps such abstract entities really do have a smell. If so, how many times might victory or success have been mine for the taking? Perhaps victory turned up to perform Riverdance in front of me every evening for years. Perhaps success has on numerous occasions, strode right up, stuck its tongue out, and then bopped me on the nose a couple of times for good measure. With my defective smelling ability, I’d have had no chance of catching either of them at it.
It’s also very likely that of the over 999 billion smells I can’t detect, some of them at least are associated with things that are dangerous. Imagine the peril this puts me in! After all, smelling a gas leak may prevent an explosion, smelling burning insulation may avert a house fire, and more exotically, smelling bitter almonds — as every Agatha Christie fan can tell you — may prevent death at the hands of almonds with a grudge.
There’s also the possibility that my ability to detect only some smells and not others has put me at an extreme social disadvantage without my realizing it. For example, the deodorant I use every morning is described on the container as being “lightly scented.” But could it be that all those people who nod and smile so pleasantly when I arrive at work in the morning, immediately begin exhaling and gasping for air the moment I leave the room? True, I can’t remember seeing coworkers slumped unconsciously over the furniture or scorch marks left on the office wallpaper as I walk past, but how can I be sure?
Then there’s the suspicion that I might have found romance much easier in my youth had I had a properly functioning sense of smell to tell me what was going on. You see, although I was never one of those unfortunate young men burdened by excessive good looks, I did attract a certain amount of interest – but I only ever found out about it when it was far too late.
For example, there was one perfectly charming young lady who worked in the office down the hall. She’d often come in with a query for me about paperwork or the use of office equipment. Indeed, she struck me as a little slow on the uptake because she’d ask almost the same questions again and again, as though she wasn’t paying much attention to the answers. I didn’t really mind, though, since it was nice to have someone who giggled her way through all of my jokes.
Sometime later, I found out to my very great surprise that she had taken quite a liking to me, but had never given me the slightest indication. This was puzzling, since she’d had plenty of opportunity to say something, such as when I’d gone with her to watch The Lion King at her request. At the time, I thought she was just being friendly. Now I suspect that all the way through the movie, she may have been wafting pheromones at me in industrial quantities. Sadly, I didn’t detect so much as a phero-whimper.
Of course, this was a good thing in the long run because it allowed me to meet my present wife. I’m not sure why things have worked out so much more successfully with her. Perhaps she also has a substandard nose, and so we have had to rely on other subtle clues as to how we are feeling, such as words. Despite our olfactory challenges, however, we’ve been together for a couple of decades so far, and with luck may enjoy several more – barring gas leaks, faulty wiring and vengeful nuts.
Text and picture © Bun Karyudo and the BunKaryudo.com blog (2016)
(All rights reserved)
This post originally appeared on my main blog on August 24th, 2016.