The scent of danger

It has been a while since my last blog. Actually, I didn’t even manage to introduce myself properly, which I want to continue with today.

Since my research interest is about olfaction, my blog will be about the strange smell I perceived when I woke up the other day. It was somewhat sweetish and alarming and it was in the bedroom when I woke up. My first association was that this must be the smell of decay. All the crime-thriller movies came to my mind. Detectives entering morgues, investigating corpses. Always with a white crème-spot between the upper-lip and the nostril. Indicating the presence of some flavorsome magic salve to antagonize the gross scent of the dead.

At this point I need to say that my associations usually don’t tend to be that … negative, but large parts of my previous day I assisted two of my three kids in organizing a funeral for an unfortunate song thrush. The poor bird had mistaken the kitchen window of our summer-house for a piece of open sky and broke his neck when trying to fly through it. Despite dozen times of hand washing, I was obviously still concerned about dead animals and the possible smell of their decaying bodies. I searched the whole bedroom and finally the rest of our summer-house, sure that there would be another poor dead animal hiding somewhere in a corner. But, without success.

Instead, the source of the smell was not inside but outside our little “stuga” and during a chat with our neighbor, she mentioned a smell of fire in the air that alarmed her. Surprised I realized that it was fire and not decay what I had been smelling and worried about. Even more surprised I became when we listened to the news some hour later, hearing about a forest fire in Sala that was the reason for the smoky smell in the area.

Our summer-location is on an island of the northern archipelago, close to Öregrund in Uppland, about 145 km north-east of Sala. By car this distance takes nearly two hours to travel. Of course there was not a hint of smoke or fire to be seen over this distance but the smell of this forest fire was clearly detectable. Actually dozens of alarm-calls of worried residents of the Öregrund area reached the local fire brigades.

Isn’t our olfactory system amazing? At a distance of 145 km, where no other sign of the forest fire could possibly be seen, heard or perceived otherwise, we could clearly smell it! And even me, being concerned about other things (dead birds), I certainly did misinterpret the identity of the suspicious odor but still I realized correctly that it was a signal of danger.

The wind turned direction since this and no more suspicious odors reached our summer-vacation idyll. Still, me and my family follow the news about this devastating forest fire, which I heard yesterday will not be under control until end of August! And hopefully, the weather will change soon, helping to get it under control.

My research interest in odors is also in the danger-warning area and more specific, the danger of being contaminated with a disease. My work follows up on a recent finding indicating that human beings may be able to smell the health or disease-status of another human being. But more about that in another blog.

Cause now, it is still vacation-time in Sweden!

So, Have fun and enjoy summer!

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