Dr. Nina Quiskamp joins Toren, Joe, and Kevin as our Five(ish) Senses series continues with “Smell”! We’ll talk about how plants can detect scents, smell in the animal kingdom, how our noses work,  various smelling dysfunctions and how one influenced Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, the smell of starvation and the stink of outer-space! Also, awful smells, landmine-sniffing rats, cancer-sniffing dogs and pop culture!

Music: “Robot Stink” by The Invasives



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    • Audra

      In 2005 I was a paramedic working in Detroit. In late spring I found out I was pregnant, which increases smell perception considerably. That summer I fondly refer to as”summer of the dead.” I spent much of July and August on the scene of dead bodies, some more intact than others. Let me tell you, some view heaving behind the ambulance unprofessional for some reason.

  • Scott D

    One day my coworker said he had something really cool to show me and told me to meet him in the prep room in 10 minutes. I walk in to see him, and his assistant wearing full heavy rubber smocks, rubber gloves, and plastic face shields on with a double-bagged cadaver laid out on the table before me. I asked them if I need those too, and they just waved it off saying nah, don’t worry about it.

    The smell was already obvious and he proceeded to open the first bag without difficulty. The second bag however was stuck to the cadaver and needed to be pealed off revealing a drowning victim with neither face nor hands, and heavily decomposed.

    The smell was robust and distinctly unpleasant, but not actually as bad as I would have guessed. Perhaps because it was in the cooler previously, I’m not sure. Needless to say they were both very disappointed when I didn’t heave.

    I have had the pleasure/opportunity to see hundreds of cadavers, and none of them smell pleasant. Even the freshest ones.

    Great show as always guys!

    • Generaleesimo

      WHERE DO YOU WORK?!?!? I need to know so that I never make the mistake of going there…..

      • Scott D

        It was at a funeral home. Most jobs simply involve the elderly who’s time had come, but occasionally you get an… interesting case 🙂

  • Charles Insandiego

    Any discussion of smells in movies must include the classic, “Polyester” starring Divine and Tab Hunter. Directed by the immortal John Waters, it was released in “Odorama”, and used a scratch and sniff card to achieve the effect. There were 10 or so smell cues in it. I recall “new car”, and “fart” were among them.

  • Lindsay

    First, I have bad news for Dr. Nina: that vomit smell from cheap parmesan? That’s butyric acid, and it’s in all parmesan, it’s what gives the cheese its flavor. But I can assure you that pure chemical is so much worse, because I had to make a weak solution of it today and managed to force several lab mates out of the room in doing so.

    Second, for those truly horrifying smells I direct you to a section of chemist Dr. Derek Lowe’s blog called “Things I Won’t Work With”, which includes selenophenol (“Imagine 6 skunks wrapped in rubber innertubes and the whole thing is set ablaze”) and
    isocyanides (the image in this abstract says it all), as well as two that reportedly caused evacuations of surrounding towns: carbon diselenide (“Imagine a sort of hyperskunk, scattering its enemies before it and making them carom off trees and dive into ponds.”) and thioacetone (“An 1890 report from the Whitehall Soap Works in Leeds refers to the odor as “fearful”, and if you could smell anything through the ambient conditions in a Leeds soap factory in 1890, it must have been.”).

  • Stuckie (@Snaggles8)

    I can understand Toren hating the rotting chicken smell as I once bought several trays of chicken on sale during summer, but had one fall out into my trunk where it decomposed over the course of a week or so until I eventually found it. However, nothing compares to the smell I encountered when visiting my cousin in Newfoundland, where the town dumped its sewage directly in the harbour, and the fish plant seemed to do the same with its entrails. I gagged for the whole week I was there while the locals didn’t even seem to notice.

  • Em

    So we were in Louisiana. In the summer. On Grand Isle (setting for The Awakening). It was about 100 degrees, 100% humid, and my dad and uncle and cousin went fishing. About 50 fish were cleaned and frozen in 3 days, and at the end of it, we put the fish guts and stuff in the garbage with grass clippings, cat poop, dog poop, and other food scraps. We left it out for several days. In that heat.

    It was so bad we left some money for the garbage man because it was THAT noxious and we felt horrible. My sister threw up when we drove by it.

  • Heather Pickett

    I went to Universal Studios and Disneyland a few months ago, and some of the rides have Smell-o-vision! For example, on the Simpsons ride, you can smell baby powder when Maggie picks you up, and then you get hit with a few drops of warm water when she “slobbers” on you.

  • Heather Pickett

    Another fun fact: the smell of formalin is an appetite stimulant. When I took anatomy at university, we’d all leave the cadaver lab starving. We didn’t really want to eat any meat after handling dead bodies for 3 hours, though. Salads all around.

    • Generaleesimo

      Weird. Does that mean we’re all inherently cannibals? Or maybe we’re just zombies in training….

      • Heather Pickett

        I think it is from the chemicals in the embalming fluid, but don’t let that stop you from cannibalism. Baby flesh is especially tender, or so I hear.

  • Kent S. Kokko

    I am an organic chemist. I have smelled the thiols, the putrescine, the cadaverine, and all the other compounds you mentioned. Nothing smells worse that organoselenium compounds. They are much like the sulfur compounds, as sulfur and selenium are in the same row of the periodic table.
    Except for chemists, no one is likely to smell the organoselenium compounds, So your lit is pretty good. Here is a link to chemist’s opinions:

  • Janelle

    Once upon a time, I worked at a gas station in a downtown area. I was heading in for the night shift and saw the door was propped open. Then I smelled overpowering fecal smell. Turns out a fellow had run into the bathroom in the morning, spent some time, and then ran out yelling “I’m sorry”. The poor assistant manager opened the door to find every wall, fixture and inch of the floor caked in shit. And like,the worst most inhuman smelling shit of all time. This caused her to vomit, adding to the miasma of evil smell. She proceeded to then try to clean it up, and even after scrubbing and bleaching the store reeked for days. Even with the door open, I would periodically have to go out for fresh air. I don’t know what was wrong with that guy, but it certainly smelled as though his insides died before the rest of him and fled his body.

  • Raptor-Chick

    When I was a kid, I lived on an acreage. There were plenty of trees around and we saw our fair share of wildlife. Like skunks. Once, a skunk got into our garage and seemed to take a liking to it. My mom asked my dad to get it out. Instead of persuading it to leave or getting a trap, he decided to make sure the skunk would never get in again. He shot it. In the attached garage. The smell lingered faintly for years.

    However, the worst thing I ever smelled was a combination chicken and pig barn on a farm in Ontario in the humid, humid summer. The smell was a physical thing. It was almost impossible to go near the barn. It would have been like Foul Ole Ron’s smell in Discworld.

  • Andrew Gould

    Joe, if your underwear is crawling all over the place, you need to do your laundry more often.

  • Carina Hunt

    Last winter one of the radio stations had a contest where they were giving out awards for the worst smelling hockey bag. Thankfully they were having the contest on the street because some guy brought in a hockey bag that made the radio host vomit on air.

  • Katrina Outland

    I’m a marine biologist, so stinky fish is pretty par for the course, but the worst smell I’ve ever experienced was as an observer (data collecter) on commercial fishing boats in Alaska. One of these boats had a factory on board, so try to imagine the smell of a stinky dead pollock, then the smell of that pollock being gutted, then its meat being ground into paste, its bones ground and dehydrated into bone meal, and the guts being ground into fish meal. Now imagine that smell times several thousand tonnes. Even after I adjusted to it, the stench would sometimes be enough to physically wake me from my sleep.

    However, that’s not the stinky part– that’s just the context so you can understand how stinky the really stinky part is. One day, I was working in the factory below deck when a new stench drifted in that almost made me vomit on the spot. I peeked above deck and learned from the crew that the net they were bringing in had gotten tangled in a partially decayed whale carcass from the sea bed. At that point, the carcass was several hundred meters away and still underwater, and the smell was still so overpowering that people were starting to throw up. There’s really nothing I know I can compare it to (I’ve heard it’s similar to dead human– maybe some of those with cadaver stories can chime in?) It’s something like rotten fish, burning grease, shit, fresh vomit and a million farts. It was some kind of big baleen whale that had been decomposed to the point of just being a skeleton with chunks of liquefying fat dripping from it. It took them over 30 minutes to detangle it, during which time half the crew had to stop working from being so ill from the stink.

  • Taylor

    Worst smell story: My first roommate in college was notoriously messy. He had a habbit of using my dishware and leaving in the sink, presumably thinking I would eventually clean his dishes for him. On 3-day holiday weekend, he had left town to visit family, while I stayed in the apartment sick with the flu.

    He had left a pile of his dirty dishes in the sink, and knowing I would have no cookware to use for 3 days, I had to clean up after him. I don’t know what he left in the sink exactly, but as I approached, a flurry of bugs erupted from under the dishes along with the most rancid smell I’ve ever experienced. I was already nauseous from the flu, so this was too much.

    He was never allowed to use my dishes again, and ate strictly off of paper plates and fast food until the end of our cohabitation.

    Best Smell: I’ve always loved the smell of people watering their lawns in hot weather, with that warm rubber scent coming from the hose water. To me I associate that smell with the beginning of summer and the end of the school year. The smell of freedom.

  • JoJo Leigh

    Great episode. I just watched your recommendation Perfume and the shots are beautiful! The ending was really dissapointing though, worst plot twist imaginable. Don’t normally comment but I had to say thanks for making my last 2 years at work tolerable. Much love, your british friend.

  • Allan Newell

    Sadly, in the Fire Service we respond frequently to decomposing corpses. In the summer months this can be stunningly nauseating. I tend to keep a small container of Tiger Balm in my gear for such incidents. A swift rub to give me a camphor mustache and I can carry on. I’ll take the heat sensation over the odour anyday.

  • Eve

    I think the african pouched rat is adorable! It looks like a mix of a pet rat and a ferret. Kevin obviously has no taste! 😉

    Anyway, I was working with the cleanup after Leeds music festival in the U.K one summer. Mostly taking care of tents, sleeping mats and other still valuable stuff people left behind, but also collecting beer cans and garbage. We had workwear, gloves and a long gripping tool, so it wasn’t totally disgusting.
    In one quite clean camp i found a small camera case. It looked filled and stiff so I assumed someone had lost their camera (and such valuables were handed to other personel). When I opened it the worst smell i’ve ever felt hit my face. It was a very warm day and so had the whole festival been, the camera case had been lying in the direct sun for hours. It was stuffed with used condoms! The pungent smell of used latex, pussy (and sphincter?) and lots of old semen – baked in that small bag for days in the sun, that smell makes me I’ll just thinking about it. I trew up. Fortunately, no one noticed in the post-festival mayhem.

  • claw

    for some more pop-culture:
    In the American version of Wilfred, the titular dog does often comment on the smells of people, especially women, usually in ways that if the humans could hear him they’d be embarassed or enraged.
    Spider Robinson wrote the book Telempath, which was in part about humanity being decimated by a plague that caused hyperosmia and how as a byproduct of that discovered a malevolent, gasseous species that had been feeding off our civilization’s pollution.
    and using farts as a means of communication was used in the Rowan Atkinson spoof of Doctor Who where he and the Master tangle on a planet once populated by a species that communicated by their wind.

  • claw

    and this Mitchell and Webb Look skit about a man who loses his sense of smell.

  • Derek Weber

    Turns out we have a binturong in my local, the South Australian Museum: http://flic.kr/p/oQikyf

  • Ermine

    On dogs sniffing out cancer… a friend of my mom’s went to her doctor because her dog (a Jack Russell Terrier, I think) kept freaking out and barking at one of her breasts every time she bent down or picked him up. She’d heard of dogs being able to sniff out cancer, so after a week or two of this she thought she should get it checked out. The doctor felt the breast and said there was nothing there.

    Two weeks later, her dog hadn’t stopped freaking out, still barking at the exact same spot on her breast, so she went back to the doctor. This time, he felt a small lump. It was indeed breast cancer, and because the dog had sensed it so early, she was able to get it removed quickly and effectively. Yay, nose power! One more reason to own a dog 🙂

    Awesome episode btw, I’ve laughed out loud several times and learned some super interesting stuff!

  • Derek

    Super smelly “skunk water” is a crowd control tool, coming to a police force near you (maybe).
    Who, What, Why: What is skunk water?