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(PHOTO: MORPHART/SHUTTERSTOCK)

The Sweet Smell of Cetacean Indigestion

• February 01, 2013 • 10:28 AM

(PHOTO: MORPHART/SHUTTERSTOCK)

You might be surprised at the depths smell-ologists will go to replicate the sweet usefulness of ambergris. A look at their quest—plus, six other deadly sins in the news this week.

Lust

With Valentine’s Day two weeks away, you may consider snagging a lover by spraying yourself with a little eau de whale barf. Or whale poo. Or excretion from a sperm whale’s abdomen. Scientists aren’t exactly sure which part of the whale ambergris comes from, mainly because the process occurs in the privacy of the whale’s deep sea hunting grounds. But it does bring a whole new meaning to the idea of dabbing on some toilet water.

Ambergris, a substance thought to protect sperm whales from intestinal irritation, is a high prize in the world of perfume, where it is blended in with fragrances. Besides adding to perfume its own earthy scent, it can enhance the fragrances’ smell and ability to stay on skin longer. But it’s not a direct whale-to-spray-bottle process. With whale hunting frowned on in most of the world, much of ambergris is manually collected on the shoreline of sperm whale haunts. (Once it exits the whale, and after it spends over ten years floating at sea, solidifying and becoming sweeter in smell, ambegris resembles a waxy yellowish grey rock.) Recently a man walking his dog on England’s Morecambe beach found seven pounds of what he believes to be ambergris. He’s waiting for the test results on the “floating gold”, but reported to the BBC that he had been offered 50,000 euros by a French dealer.

Because of its rarity, scientists and perfumers have long sought a replacement for ambergris. One possibility is sclareol, which is derived from the clary sage plant. Extracting sclareol is also a timely and difficult process, thus inspiring scientists like Laurent Daviet and Michel Schalk to isolate clary sage DNA. Once the DNA is placed in bacteria, large amounts of sclareol can be made in bioreactors. Also, researchers at the University of British Columbia have identified a gene in balsam fir trees that shares ambergris’ qualities, suggesting a less expensive and more sustainable option than other proposed substitutes.

Note: Rubbing yourself with a slab of ambergris may not produce the same results as your Chanel No. 5.

Gluttony

According to the National Chicken Council’s 2013 Wing Report, Americans will eat 1.23 billion wings this weekend during the Super Bowl. If laid side by side, the chicken bits would stretch from Candlestick Park in San Francisco to the M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore 27 times. NPR reports the wings first got their boost in popularity by being a cheap bar food option, although now the barbecue-sauce-speckled face of fame has caused the half-time snack to cost more than the before-favored bone-in chicken breasts.

Greed

Gold looks great on a tiara, but it may also cure cancer. A study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports that gold-carrying nanoparticles are capable of killing a type of cancer, B-cell lymphoma. This cancer attacks antibody-making B cells in the blood and, Smithsonian magazine reports, caused nearly 19,000 deaths last year. Although developing a drug therapy utilizing these nanoparticles requires further testing, their use might replace chemotherapy.

Sloth

Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley have determined that a solid night’s sleep is essential to a sharp mind. In this study, 19 people of retirement age and 18 people in their early 20s had their medial prefrontal cortex measured (they’re bigger when you’re younger) and then asked to study a list of bizarre word combinations. The participants were then tested on their ability to remember the words after a half hour of studying and later tested again after a full night’s sleep. The 20-year-olds outscored their older competitors both before and after a night’s rest. Researchers concluded that it wasn’t youth per se, but young people’s larger prefrontal cortexes, which enabled them to have a longer amount of slow-wave sleep, which in turn acts as a “save button” for new memories.

Wrath

Beware the wrath of a kitty cat, especially if you are a bird or a vole. Scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Fish and Wildlife Service have estimated that domesticated cats kill a median of 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals in the United States each year. While free-roaming house cats account for 29 percent of birds and 11 percent of mammals, their 80 million feral brethren make up the rest.

Pride

Those who pride themselves on their ability to multitask are probably the worst at it, according to a new study by University of Utah psychologists. The participants studied were measured for both their perceived ability to multitask and their actual ability to do so. The psychologists found that those who love to multitask do so not because it is a strength, but because they can’t block out distractions and focus on one activity. Test subjects who performed in the top 25 percent were those who stated they prefer to do one thing at a time.

Envy

If you want the trust of your companions, wish for brown eyes, according to a new study from the Charles University in Prague—or at least a face that usually comes with a pair of big browns. Test subjects judged facial photographs for perceived trustworthiness, and pictures featuring brown-eyed faces were judged more trustworthy than those with blue eyes. But when eye color on the photographs was switched, the subjects’ responses didn’t change. Researchers concluded that trustworthiness is less a factor of eye color and more the facial features associated with brown eyes.

Sarah Sloat
Sarah Sloat is an editorial fellow with Pacific Standard. She was previously selected as an intern for the Sara Miller McCune Endowed Internship and Public Service Program and has studied abroad in both Argentina and the U.K. Sarah has recently graduated from the University of California-Santa Barbara with a degree in Global and International Studies. Follow her on Twitter @sarahshmee.

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