In the movie Roxanne, Steve Martin plays a lovesick guy who mocks his own huge schnoz by declaring: “It’s not the size of a nose that’s important. It’s what’s in it that matters.” Scientists demonstrated the surprising truth behind that joke this year: People can whiff an average of more than 1 trillion different odors, regardless of nose size (SN: 4/19/14, p. 6).
No one had systematically probed how many scents people can actually tell apart. So a team led by Leslie Vosshall of Rockefeller University in New York City asked 26 men and women to discriminate between pairs of scents created from mixes of 128 odor molecules. Volunteers easily discriminated between smells that shared as much as 51 percent of their odor molecules. Errors gradually rose as pairs of scents became chemically more alike.
Vosshall’s group calculated that an average participant could tell apart a minimum of more than 1 trillion smells made up of different combinations of 30 odor molecules. Really good smellers could have detected way more than 1 trillion odor mixtures, the scientists said.
Smell lags behind sight and hearing as a sense that people need to find food, avoid dangers and otherwise succeed at surviving. Still, detecting the faint odor of spoiled food and other olfactory feats must have contributed to the success of Homo sapiens over the last 200,000 years.
Perhaps many animals can whiff the difference between a trillion or more smells. For now, odor-detection studies modeled on Vosshall’s approach have been conducted only with humans.