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If You Can’t Smell, Can You Taste?

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I’m perfectly suited to answer the Big Question that reader Katie posed the other day, because I have anosmia, which means I can’t smell. At all. Every diaper my two-year-old has ever filled has been totally odorless to me. I also missed out on her new baby smell, which I hear is pretty fantastic. I can’t tell if I come back to work still stinky from a lunchtime run, which often concerns me, but other people’s B.O. doesn’t bother me either. I’m never tempted by the smell of Auntie Anne’s Pretzels wafting through the mall, and when someone burns popcorn in the microwave at work, I really don’t care. I’m also convinced I’m going to die due to a gas leak sometime when I’m alone in the house.

The first thing people always ask when they find out about my lack of smell is, “Wait, but can you taste?”

As you no doubt already know, taste and smell are very closely related. Food odors engage the olfactory nerves in noses while taste buds react on your tongue, and together the two combine to make your eating experience enjoyable (or not). So, it’s reasonable to say that anosmiacs only get half the experience.

I personally have a preference for things that rank high on the spectrum of salty, sweet, sour and bitter. I’m not totally confident that I taste umami at all. Sauerkraut right out of the can is delicious. I’ve never met a sweet that was “too rich” for me. Bring on the spicy foods. But I find it impossible to distinguish between specific flavors. Jolly Ranchers all taste the same to me, unless I get a sour one like green apple or lemon. I could never taste a homecooked meal and compliment the chef on her unique blend of spices. Sage, basil, oregano - it’s all the same (though cilantro tastes kind of soapy to me).

Researchers think that 1 in 5,000-10,000 people worldwide are afflicted with some form of anosmia. There are lots of ways to lose your sniffer. As some people get older, they find that their sense of smell is less acute simply due to aging. Other causes include head trauma, smoking, nasal polyps and many diseases such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. As far as I know, none of those apply to me: I have Congenital Anosmia, AKA, baby, I was born this way.

Here’s an anosmic trying to differentiate between tastes while blindfolded. The results make me think that every anosmic experiences taste differently, because I’m quite sure I would know the difference between orange juice and cranberry juice.

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Big Questions
Why Is Soda Measured in Liters?
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Never a nation to fall in line, America is one of the few countries to resist the metric system. We stubbornly measure distance in miles and weight in pounds. So what’s with those two-liter bottles of soda?

First, a clarification: Soda is far from the only substance we measure in metric units. Heck, it’s not even the only beverage. Wine, liquor, and bottled water are sold by the milliliter. The healthcare field is all about metric units, too, from cholesterol levels to prescription, over-the-counter, and supplement dosages. We run 5-kilometer races, ride on 215-millimeter tires, and use 8-millimeter cameras, or at least we used to.

In most other things, we determinedly cling to our imperial measurements. Attempts to convince Americans to join the rest of the metric-measuring world have been met with great resistance.

Ken Butcher of the National Institute of Science and Technology has been working with the government’s tiny Metric Program for years. Speaking to Mental Floss back in 2013, Butcher explained that we’re so entrenched in our way of doing things that switching measurement systems now would be both chaotic and expensive.

"If we were going to start a new country all with the metric system, it would be easy," he said. "But when you have to go in and change almost everything that touches people’s everyday life and their physical and mental experience, their education, and then you take that away from them—it can be scary."

Here and there, though, when it’s convenient, we have been willing to budge. The soda bottle is a good example. Until 1970, all soft drinks in the U.S. were sold in fluid ounces and gallons, mostly in glass bottles. Then the plastic polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle came along, and soft drink makers decided it was time for a product redesign.

The redesign process coincided with two key factors: a short-lived wave of government interest in going metric, and the burgeoning environmental movement.

The folks at PepsiCo decided to meld all three into its exciting new vessel: a lightweight, cheap, recyclable, metric bottle, with built-in fins so it could stand up on supermarket shelves. Two liters: the soda size of the future.

The two-liter bottle took off. The rest of the soft drink world had no choice but to get on board. And voila: liters of cola for all.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Where Is the Hottest Place on Earth?
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The summer of 2017 will go down as an endurance test of sorts for the people of Phoenix, Arizona. The National Weather Service issued an extreme heat warning, and planes were grounded as a result of temperatures exceeding 120 degrees. (Heat affects air density, which in turn affects a plane’s lift.)

Despite those dire measures, Phoenix is not the hottest place on Earth. And it’s not even close.

That dubious honor was bestowed on the Lut Desert in Iran in 2005, when land temperatures were recorded at a staggering 159.3 degrees Fahrenheit. The remote area was off the grid—literally—for many years until satellites began to measure temperatures in areas that were either not well trafficked on foot or not measured with the proper instruments. Lut also measured record temperatures in 2004, 2006, 2007, and 2009.

Before satellites registered Lut as a contender, one of the hottest areas on Earth was thought to be El Azizia, Libya, where a 1922 measurement of 136 degrees stood as a record for decades. (Winds blowing from the nearby Sahara Desert contributed to the oppressive heat.)

While the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) acknowledged this reading as the hottest on record for years, they later declared that instrumentation problems and other concerns led to new doubts about the accuracy.

Naturally, declaring the hottest place on Earth might be about more than just a single isolated reading. If it’s consistency we’re after, then the appropriately-named Death Valley in California, where temperatures are consistently 90 degrees or above for roughly half the year and at least 100 degrees for 140 days annually, has to be a contender. A blistering temperature of 134 degrees was recorded there in 1913.

Both Death Valley and Libya were measured using air temperature readings, while Lut was taken from a land reading, making all three pretty valid contenders. These are not urban areas, and paving the hottest place on Earth with sidewalks would be a very, very bad idea. Temperatures as low as 95 degrees can cause blacktop and pavement to reach skin-scorching temperatures of 141 degrees.

There are always additional factors to consider beyond a temperature number, however. In 2015, Bandar Mahshahr in Iran recorded temperatures of 115 degrees but a heat index—what it feels like outside when accounting for significant humidity—of an astounding 163 degrees. That thought might be one of the few things able to cool Phoenix residents off.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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