Culturing Science – biology as relevant to us earthly beings

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Carnal Carnival: Body Odor Edition!

Welcome to the 6th edition of the Carnal Carnival, a blog carnival founded by Bora Zivkovic and Jason Goldman, dedicated to celebrating the traditionally gross in the animal world.  Previous editions have featured poop, vomit, decay and orgasm (which is less gross, but still pretty taboo).

This month of January 2011, the carnival features BODY ODOR!

I'm an artiste; don't judge

You know … when you go to the gym and there’s that one guy, shirtless and reeking of garlic, who happens to be on the treadmill next to you and you nearly pass out.  Or maybe it’s your best friend and, after months of avoiding having a conversation with her about her overwhelming odor, you just buy her deodorant for her birthday.  The smell of B.O. is imprinted upon each of our minds – a stench that sometimes makes us question why we have the ability to smell in the first place.

What is smell and why would we evolve this sense?  What we think of as smell – sniffing odors through our noses – is just a form of chemosensing, found in bacteria, ants, dogs, and, yes, humans.  We have chemoreceptors in our noses that pick up chemicals in our environment and interpret them.  Bacteria use chemosensing to pick up on cues in the environment, molecules of poison or food for example, and can then move towards or away from them.  Ants are well known for their pheromone trails which can alert other members of their colony to danger or to a food source.

The Search by xkcd

In a similar vein, humans have retained their sense of smell to identify food and poisons.  Because rotten food, such as the “smelly dead” illustrated by Viktor Poor of Stripped Science below, gives off such a rank smell and can also make us sick, we can learn to avoid poisonous food based on smell.  But that’s not all this sense does.  We like to think that we are far mightier than ants and that we have control over all our decisions based on mind and intellect alone.  But just like the ant, we also communicate messages to each other through pheromones given off in our sweat, our body odor, that we interpret without realizing it.

Drawing by Viktor Poor of "Stripped Science"

The Smell of Fear

Pounding heart.  Sweaty palms.  Sudden inability to speak.  Enhanced athletic ability.  These are all human reactions to fear.  When you’re scared or anxious or nervous, you feel them to your core – however, those around you might not be aware that you are so scared, much less why.  Thus there is a benefit to be able to communicate this emotion to the people around you, so that they can also be aware, alert, and ready to react.

Since there is not yet evidence of telepathy, sense of smell is the obvious way for individuals to communicate with one another non-verbally.

  • Does sweat produced when a person is anxious make others who smell it more likely to take risks? See this post at BPS Research Digest by Christian Jarrett
  • Can the smell of sweat produced by subjects in horror (watching horror films) cause others to be more likely to see threats where there aren’t any? See Neurocritic‘s post, “I Know What You Sweated Last Summer”

B. O. is sexy?

I have a friend who doesn’t shower too frequently.  Whenever his hair is looking a little greasy and he starts to smell a bit funky, someone will often joke to his girlfriend, “how do you put up with it?”  He’ll then stick his armpit in her face and, with triumph, yell, “She loves my smell!  She can’t get enough!”  Is there any truth to this?

  • Can a woman determine whether a man is aroused just by smelling his sweat?  See posts at both the Neuroskeptic and Christie Wilcox, at her old site
  • Can you identify your partner based on scent alone?  And does this ability vary depending on how “in love” she is?  See this post at Christie Wilcox’s site at Scienceblogs
  • Could there be another explanation for my friend’s cocky behavior? Scicurious of Neurotopia presents an interesting study correlating the attractiveness of a man, rated by women, with his self-evaluation of his own smell

For a great overview on this topic, read Jesse Bering’s post on his Scientific American blog, “Bering in Mind,” Armpit Psychology: The Science of Body Odor Perception.

That’s just rank!

Sometimes there’s nothing else to say but that.

  • How do you deal with people who have bad B.O. in public spaces?  Christina Pikas writes about B.O. in public libraries
  • Morning breath.  We all know about this particular breed of B.O. James Byrne of Disease Prone writes about this, and the broader bad-breath diagnosis of halitosis
  • People aren’t the only ones who can sense and have to deal with the stink of one another.  Read about how elephants can differentiate between different human ethnic groups based on smell alone on Ed Yong’s Not Exactly Rocket Science

To learn more about the evolution of pheromones, I recommend Dr. Kara Hoover’s recent review in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, “Smell with Inspiration: the evolutionary significance of olfaction.”

Thanks for reading, and I hope you learned a thing or two about the science of human stench.

To end, I’d like to share the greatest human-produced smell of all: The Smell of Teen Spirit

Written by Hanner

January 24, 2011 at 10:01 pm

Q&A in Charlotte Observer

Good morning, folks,

Just writing this self-promotional post to inform you that T. Delene Beeland did a little Q&A section with me in the Charlotte Observer for Blog of the Week.  So if you want to read my answers to 3 questions, click here.  (Also there is a picture of me with my stuffed shark I got in Alabama.  His name is El Sanguino, i.e. The Bloody One.  My very own bastardization of Spanish, thank you very much.)

Post coming soon – in honor of the upcoming poop-themed Carnal Carnival to be hosted by Bora of A Blog Around the Clock this month.  Submit your own posts to carnivalcarnal AT gmail DOT com

Good day, y’all!


Written by Hanner

August 16, 2010 at 7:01 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Press Release “Science” of the Day

Thanks for sharing real science with us, PhysOrg!

Jokes are turning up more and more in press releases these days.  Who cares what this study really means?  Putting a Village People quote in as a draw is way more important.

Written by Hanner

July 30, 2010 at 8:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Oops! RSS feed mishap requires me to self-promote in a separate post

As I warned recently, RSS feeds have gotten a little wonky with the URL change.  So I’ve switched back to the wordpress address, with the .com forwarding here.  It was really an issue of pride and I’m over it – it doesn’t matter much in the end.

BUT!  It means that you guys on the wordpress RSS feed have missed a couple items, one of which has been in the works for the past month and thus I’m eager to share and hear your reactions.

  • The blood n’ sweat post, entitled Inevitability and Oil, Pt. 1: the inherent risk for accidents in complex technology, is my attempt to cast a wider net on the BP oil spill.  The media has mainly focused on nitpicking the details, but I think this “presents an opportunity for us to reflect upon what it means to be a society reliant on complex technologies whose failures can cause disaster.”  Comment or email me and let me know what you think!
  • I also posted a beautiful video of deep sea squids compiled by MBARI

I deeply apologize to the 2 of you on the .com feed who are forced to read these news updates twice.

Speaking of computers… I’m in the market for a new laptop.  This baby is old enough that it’s missing 3 keys (with many others failing regularly, including the “enter” key) and has zero battery.  Love yours?  Hate it?  I need advice!  Seriously.  I cannot even choose what kind of bread to get at the supermarket.  Tips to hannah.waters [at] gmail [dot] com

Thanks for reading!


Tweet at me: @CulturingSci

EDIT:  And… this post reset the RSS feed.  And the world is back in order.  Sorry folks.

Written by Hanner

June 22, 2010 at 6:21 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

A coupla site updates

Hey there,

I have a couple of internet-related site updates to disperse.

First of all, I have bought my very own domain name.  I feel like a real adult now!  Culturing Science is still available at its WordPress address, but you can also access it at  (If you’re in a hurry and can’t waste time with the extra keystrokes…?)

That said, RSS feeds may get a little bit funky.  I’m 90% sure the wordpress one will still update in a timely matter, but if you want to be safe, you can subscribe to the new feed here.

The biggest news is that I’m now on Twitter!  I’ll be using it mainly to share great blog posts and other interesting science tidbits on the web, so if you’re on twitter, let’s be follow buddies/develop true friendship.  The name is @CulturingSci

Have a good weekend.  USA!


PS: That last bit was a farce, I actually don’t care about soccer.  I’m a baseball girl to the core.  Go Trenton Thunder!  Go Phils!

Written by Hanner

June 18, 2010 at 10:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

On Synthetic Life

(c) Fantastic Four # 15, 1965

Wait… is that Mr Fantastic or Craig Venter?

Back from vacation after this weekend – I was down on the Gulf Coast of Alabama so will hopefully have some oil spill updates/info up sometime next week.

Have a good weekend!


Written by Hanner

May 21, 2010 at 2:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Major universities write open letter in support of FRPAA, open access publishing act

Congress finds that–

(1) the Federal Government funds basic and applied research with the expectation that new ideas and discoveries that result from the research, if shared and effectively disseminated, will advance science and improve the lives and welfare of people of the United States and around the world; and

(2) the Internet makes it possible for this information to be promptly available to every scientist, physician, educator, and citizen at home, in school, or in a library.

HR 5037 2010

I’ve written previously about why I feel open access publishing of scientific research is important, and the challenges it faces.  Currently most high-profile journals are closed access, requiring a paid subscription of hundreds of dollars each year, despite the fact that most research is funded through government agencies.  Why should taxpayers have to pay twice to have access to science?

As I’ve said before, it’s a complicated question.  How do we keep productivity and quality up without the competitive atmosphere created by journal hierarchy?  How do we ensure that peer review is selective without revenue?

But I think the benefits outweigh the potentially negative outcomes of these questions.  Science will become more efficient as scientists everywhere have greater access to results and methods.  We will have more opportunities to create databases and communicate with one another.  The public will have access to the latest developments, promoting science education.  And research has the potential to fall under greater scrutiny by both the scientific and non-scientific communities.  I also just like the idea of science-for-everyone as a rule; science is not for the elite, but for the world!  (Right?)

Congressman Mike Doyle (D- Go Pennsylvania!) has revived an older bill, proposing the 2010 version of FRPAA (Federal Research Public Access Act), which would require all research institutions that spend over $100 million each year in research funding to require that the resulting research be public within 6 months of publication.  This includes all the major funding agencies, such as the NIH (National Institute of Health), NSF (National Science Foundation), CDC (Center for Disease Control), and others.

Today, major research universities – Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, UPenn (pound!), UTexas, Pitt, UCs, Rutgers, Ohio State, UIndiana, UIllinois, etc. etc. – got together and wrote a letter to Congress (.pdf warning!) in support of this bill.  They state everything I have just tried to explain above far more eloquently.

As scholars and university administrators, we are acutely aware that the present system of scholarly communication does not always serve the best interests of our institutions or the general public.  Scholarly publishers, academic libraries, university leaders, and scholars themselves must engage in an ongoing dialogue about the means of scholarly production and distribution. This dialogue must acknowledge both our competing interests and our common goals. The passage of FRPAA will be an important step in catalyzing that dialogue, but it is not the last one that we will need to take.

FRPAA is good for education and good for research. It is good for the American public, and it promotes broad, democratic access to knowledge. While it challenges the academy and scholarly publishers to think and act creatively, it need not threaten nor undermine a successful balance of our interests. If passed, we will work with researchers, publishers, and federal agencies to ensure its successful implementation. We endorse FRPAA’s aims and urge the academic community, individually and collectively, to voice support for its passage.

The internet and globalization have created opportunities for collaboration and the rapid spread of information, but the current system of publication is antiquated and is only hindering us.  I am enlivened by both the existence of this bill and its acceptance among research institutions.  I’m sure people will find fault with the 6-month waiting period, but this is a big step.

Let’s just pray now that it will easily pass in congress.  Then the real work will begin, of creating ways for us to share the public information in an organized fashion.  I’m looking forward to the day when we get to face those challenges.

(Info from GenomeWeb Daily Scan)

Written by Hanner

April 27, 2010 at 7:28 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Carnival of Evolution #22 – Check it out!

I forgot to mention – the 22nd Carnival of Evolution is going on at Beetles in the Bush.  Head over there to see some great recent posts on evolutionary biology, on topics including human and primate studies, microbiology, theory, and sex.  (You might spot me among the 26 fabulous submissions…)

Written by Hanner

April 7, 2010 at 5:03 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Quote of the Day: Lamarck on Species

From Lamarck’s Zoological Philosophy (1809)

The farther we advance in our knowledge of the various organised bodies which cover almost every part of the earth’s surface, the greater becomes our difficulty in determining what should be regarded as a species, and still more in finding the boundaries and distinctions of genera.

According as the productions of nature are collected and our museums grow richer, we see nearly all gaps filled up and the lines of demarcation effaced.  We find ourselves reduced to an arbitrary decision which sometimes leads us to take the smallest differences of varieties and erect them into what we call species, and sometimes leads us to describe as a variety of some species slightly differing individuals which others regard as constituting a separate species.

Just as true now as then.

And for your information: Lamarck’s full name is Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet Lamarck.

Written by Hanner

March 29, 2010 at 12:14 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with ,

The Trajectory of Biology, Pt. 1: an introduction

Early in the month, Nick Merkelson, a cultural heritage studies graduate student writing at Culture in Peril, challenged me to think about whether humans have the capacity to fully understand a system on the large-scale, whether cultural or biological.  And while I, no philosopher, cannot address that question directly, have ever since had my mind set on the field of biology as a whole, and what “Biology” means exactly.

Sure, it means the study of biological systems.  But beyond that.. can we really generalize?  Can we even generalize based on purpose or intent of the study of biology?

The intents I will focus on are understanding and creation.  Studying biology for the sake of simply understanding how it all works, versus studying biology to create medicine, or reduce climate change, or benefit mankind in some way.

I will spend the next week or two exploring different ideas about where the purpose of science stands, how it got there, and predictions on where we are heading.  I’ll probably raise more questions than I answer, but, hey, isn’t that what science is like anyhow?

Written by Hanner

March 27, 2010 at 6:00 pm