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Scientists Say We Can Smell Happiness

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The old saying goes that happiness is contagious. New research suggests there might actually be some science to back that up. Happiness, scientists say, has a distinct smell that humans can sense on one another. And when we get a good whiff of someone else's joy, we get happier too. 

The key lies in our sweat. According to psychological scientist Gün Semin of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, senior research on the study, "[B]eing exposed to sweat produced under happiness induces a simulacrum of happiness in receivers, and induces a contagion of the emotional state." 

He and his team collected sweat samples from a group of 12 men as they watched videos meant to induce different emotions, like happiness and fear. The sweat samples were then passed along to a group of female test subjects for sniffing.

The researchers wanted to know how the different sweat samples made women feel. To measure this, they watched for changes in facial expression that might indicate an emotional response. When women were exposed to “happy sweat,” their faces displayed classic microexpressions associated with pleasure: the muscles around their eyes activated as if they were about to flash a genuine, happiness-induced grin. This is called the “Duchenne smile,” and it’s a giveaway sign of true joy. The man who discovered it, French anatomist Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne de Boulogne, once said, "The muscle around the eye ... is only brought into play by a true feeling, an agreeable emotion. Its inertia in smiling unmasks a false friend."

We already knew that chemicals in our sweat can convey fear. When we “smell” fear on someone else, the stress centers in our brains are activated and we become more alert, ready to defend ourselves from a threat. That's evolutionarily useful.

Pamela Dalton, an olfactory scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, says the communication of danger-induced fear is so important that she "would expect the ability to communicate a happy emotion to [actually] be less potent than the ability to transmit a negative emotion." But that may not be the case.

The findings could have big implications for how we treat depression or mood disorders. “If we can actually extract the biochemical combination that is induced by happiness, then you can have products that are ‘laced’ with this biochemical and will make people feel more positive,” Semin says

More research is needed before we can put happy spray in a can. “Researchers would have to parse out its unique chemical cocktail from among the 180 to 200 known chemicals that make up human body odor,” writes Rachel E. Gross at Slate. “That’d be like determining Coca-Cola’s proprietary formula from scratch.” Also, the study only looked at how sweat influences women. The researchers claim this is because “women generally have both a better sense of smell and a greater sensitivity to emotional signals than men do.” But we’d need to know if the effect exists for men, as well. 

Finally, while this study is fascinating, it should be taken with a big grain of salt until the findings can be replicated. Why? It was funded in part by Unilever, which sells—you guessed it—Axe body spray. 

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More Details Emerge About 'Oumuamua, Earth's First-Recorded Interstellar Visitor
 NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA/JPL-Caltech

In October, scientists using the University of Hawaii's Pan-STARRS 1 telescope sighted something extraordinary: Earth's first confirmed interstellar visitor. Originally called A/2017 U1, the once-mysterious object has a new name—'Oumuamua, according to Scientific American—and researchers continue to learn more about its physical properties. Now, a team from the University of Hawaii's Institute of Astronomy has published a detailed report of what they know so far in Nature.

Fittingly, "'Oumuamua" is Hawaiian for "a messenger from afar arriving first." 'Oumuamua's astronomical designation is 1I/2017 U1. The "I" in 1I/2017 stands for "interstellar." Until now, objects similar to 'Oumuamua were always given "C" and "A" names, which stand for either comet or asteroid. New observations have researchers concluding that 'Oumuamua is unusual for more than its far-flung origins.

It's a cigar-shaped object 10 times longer than it is wide, stretching to a half-mile long. It's also reddish in color, and is similar in some ways to some asteroids in our solar system, the BBC reports. But it's much faster, zipping through our system, and has a totally different orbit from any of those objects.

After initial indecision about whether the object was a comet or an asteroid, the researchers now believe it's an asteroid. Long ago, it might have hurtled from an unknown star system into our own.

'Oumuamua may provide astronomers with new insights into how stars and planets form. The 750,000 asteroids we know of are leftovers from the formation of our solar system, trapped by the Sun's gravity. But what if, billions of years ago, other objects escaped? 'Oumuamua shows us that it's possible; perhaps there are bits and pieces from the early years of our solar system currently visiting other stars.

The researchers say it's surprising that 'Oumuamua is an asteroid instead of a comet, given that in the Oort Cloud—an icy bubble of debris thought to surround our solar system—comets are predicted to outnumber asteroids 200 to 1 and perhaps even as high as 10,000 to 1. If our own solar system is any indication, it's more likely that a comet would take off before an asteroid would.

So where did 'Oumuamua come from? That's still unknown. It's possible it could've been bumped into our realm by a close encounter with a planet—either a smaller, nearby one, or a larger, farther one. If that's the case, the planet remains to be discovered. They believe it's more likely that 'Oumuamua was ejected from a young stellar system, location unknown. And yet, they write, "the possibility that 'Oumuamua has been orbiting the galaxy for billions of years cannot be ruled out."

As for where it's headed, The Atlantic's Marina Koren notes, "It will pass the orbit of Jupiter next May, then Neptune in 2022, and Pluto in 2024. By 2025, it will coast beyond the outer edge of the Kuiper Belt, a field of icy and rocky objects."

Last month, University of Wisconsin–Madison astronomer Ralf Kotulla and scientists from UCLA and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) used the WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Arizona, to take some of the first pictures of 'Oumuamua. You can check them out below.

Images of an interloper from beyond the solar system — an asteroid or a comet — were captured on Oct. 27 by the 3.5-meter WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Ariz.
Images of 'Oumuamua—an asteroid or a comet—were captured on October 27.
WIYN OBSERVATORY/RALF KOTULLA

U1 spotted whizzing through the Solar System in images taken with the WIYN telescope. The faint streaks are background stars. The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image. In these images U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faint
The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image against faint streaks of background stars. In these images, U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faintest visible stars.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Color image of U1, compiled from observations taken through filters centered at 4750A, 6250A, and 7500A.
Color image of U1.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Editor's note: This story has been updated.

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Scientists Analyze the Moods of 90,000 Songs Based on Music and Lyrics
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Based on the first few seconds of a song, the part before the vocalist starts singing, you can judge whether the lyrics are more likely to detail a night of partying or a devastating breakup. The fact that musical structures can evoke certain emotions just as strongly as words can isn't a secret. But scientists now have a better idea of which language gets paired with which chords, according to their paper published in Royal Society Open Science.

For their study, researchers from Indiana University downloaded 90,000 songs from Ultimate Guitar, a site that allows users to upload the lyrics and chords from popular songs for musicians to reference. Next, they pulled data from labMT, which crowd-sources the emotional valence (positive and negative connotations) of words. They referred to the music recognition site Gracenote to determine where and when each song was produced.

Their new method for analyzing the relationship between music and lyrics confirmed long-held knowledge: that minor chords are associated with sad feelings and major chords with happy ones. Words with a negative valence, like "pain," "die," and "lost," are all more likely to fall on the minor side of the spectrum.

But outside of major chords, the researchers found that high-valence words tend to show up in a surprising place: seventh chords. These chords contain four notes at a time and can be played in both the major and minor keys. The lyrics associated with these chords are positive all around, but their mood varies slightly depending on the type of seventh. Dominant seventh chords, for example, are often paired with terms of endearment, like "baby", or "sweet." With minor seventh chords, the words "life" and "god" are overrepresented.

Using their data, the researchers also looked at how lyric and chord valence differs between genres, regions, and eras. Sixties rock ranks highest in terms of positivity while punk and metal occupy the bottom slots. As for geography, Scandinavia (think Norwegian death metal) produces the dreariest music while songs from Asia (like K-Pop) are the happiest. So if you're looking for a song to boost your mood, we suggest digging up some Asian rock music from the 1960s, and make sure it's heavy on the seventh chords.

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