Nosing out new skills and opportunities

Something we can learn about smell from animals: steaming horse dung smells better than dry dung. (Photo:

Something we can learn about smell from animals: steaming horse dung smells better than dry dung. (Photo:

I HAVE been thinking about smells and the role they play in my life a great deal recently for two reasons. A month ago, my optometrist tut-tutted at length about the ongoing deterioration of my eyes. They’ve been pain in the ass (or rather, pain in the eyes) all my life and I’ve long worried that, just as my grandmother was in her 60s, I’ll be virtually blind in a decade or two.

A few days after the eye-eye tut-tut session, I went to a conference at which an olfactory expert – she makes a lot of scents – complained about how little we homo sapiens use our sense of smell to get by these days.

For heaven’s sake, she argued, ‘homo sapiens’ is Latin for ‘wise man’ or ‘knowing man’, and yet we depend almost entirely on our vision and hearing to navigate the world. If we were as smart as we think we are, we’d stop turning our noses up at scents and odours, and develop our olfactory skills to improve our chances of remaining earth’s alleged superior species.

Naturally, I put two and two together; if I fine-tune my aptitude for living a smell-driven life now, I won’t miss my eyesight as much, should it eventually fail me entirely.

I began my training by researching animals (by which I mean my three dogs) and their propensity for sniffing their way through life.

I drew the following conclusions:

• If, when I’m introduced to strangers, I can no longer make out their outstretched hands, it will be acceptable to stick my nose in their crotches instead;
• While out and about, it’s imperative to closely investigate the world’s faecal affairs by placing your nostrils on all specimens deposited in the neighbourhood;
• Steaming horse dung smells better than dry dung. It’s also a good source of fibre, Prof Tim Noakes’s high protein diet notwithstanding;
• When sensing an attractive smell emitted by something like fresh bread or a steaming plate of dinner, olfactory enjoyment is maximised by placing nose, lips and mouth directly on the item, even if you were engaged in any of the previously-mentioned activities moments ago; and
• The best way of bringing the smell of things like dead fish and seagulls, rotting seals and raw sewerage home is by rolling in it.

But I’m not the only one who has been nosing about in the smell department of late. Japanese scientists have developed a new technology to alert people to fire using the smell of the Japanese vegetable, wasabi.

Most people killed in building fires are asleep or elderly and don’t hear alarm signals. Researchers experimented with about 100 smells, including rotten eggs, before settling on the smell of wasabi. The Wasabi Alarm detects smoke and then ejects spicy wasabi, which creates a stinging sensation in the nostrils and wakes people up.

The technology won Harvard University’s Ig Nobel Chemistry Prize, which is a spoof on the Nobel Prize and recognises inventions that “first make people laugh and then make them think”. It also proves that some of the best ideas are not only right under your nose but also sometimes get up your nose too.

(This was first published on Business Day’s Business Life page as my technology column in 2012.)

About Administrator

Author and freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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