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Can You Smell All The Smell Out of Something?

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As anyone who has ever hung on to a sentimentally scented object can attest, smells can fade. But can you actively sniff the odor out of something? This was the question mental_floss posed to smell scientist and author of What The Nose Knows, Avery Gilbert, who insisted that, despite some caveats, the "hypothetical isn't really all that weird."

Gilbert explains over email that air fresheners designed to last a certain amount of time rely on the evaporation of chemicals that trigger receptors in your olfactory sensory neurons, and that could be applied to sniffing. "In principle, you could put a drop of scent in a sealed bottle and, with a pair of one-way valves and a nose mask, repeatedly sniff out the scented air," he says. "This would eventually deplete the odor. It might take a whole lot of huffing, but it could be done."

So could you stand over a stinky sock and sniff until it stopped smelling? "Probably not," Gilbert says. "Most scent-saturated materials (gym socks, White Castle boxes, etc.) tend to hang on to fragrance molecules pretty tenaciously, making it hard to get to absolute zero smell."  Things like porosity, electrical charge, and chemical structure all affect how strongly an object hangs on to the molecules responsible for triggering smells in our brain. Also, the butyric acid that causes feet to stink happens to be especially "clingy"—but then again, so is the vanillin that causes vanilla odor.

When you chew gum until the flavor is gone, your nose gets a tiny portion of the blame. Odor molecules reach your olfactory neurons in one of two ways—either through your nostrils or through the roof of your mouth. When gum loses its flavor, "some of the volatile flavor compounds dissolve and get swallowed," Gilbert says. "But the rest are 'smelled away' through the nose." 

Still, don't be afraid to stop and smell the roses. They have plenty of scent to go around.

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Big Questions
What is Duck Sauce?
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A plate of Chinese takeout with egg rolls and duck sauce
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We know that our favorite Chinese takeout is not really authentically Chinese, but more of an Americanized series of menu options very loosely derived from overseas inspiration. (Chinese citizens probably wouldn’t recognize chop suey or orange-glazed chicken, and fortune cookies are of Japanese origin.) It would also be unusual for "real" Chinese meals to be accompanied by a generous amount of sauce packets.

Here in the U.S., these condiments are a staple of Chinese takeout. But one in particular—“duck sauce”—doesn’t really offer a lot of information about itself. What exactly is it that we’re pouring over our egg rolls?

Smithsonian.com conducted a sauce-related investigation and made an interesting discovery, particularly if you’re not prone to sampling Chinese takeout when traveling cross-country. On the East Coast, duck sauce is similar to sweet-and-sour sauce, only fruitier; in New England, it’s brown, chunky, and served on tables; and on the West Coast, it’s almost unheard of.

While the name can describe different sauces, associating it with duck probably stems from the fact that the popular Chinese dish Peking duck is typically served with a soybean-based sauce. When dishes began to be imported to the States, the Americanization of the food involved creating a sweeter alternative using apricots that was dubbed duck sauce. (In New England, using applesauce and molasses was more common.)

But why isn’t it easily found on the West Coast? Many sauce companies are based in New York and were in operation after Chinese food had already gained a foothold in California. Attempts to expand didn’t go well, and so Chinese food aficionados will experience slightly different tastes depending on their geography. But regardless of where they are, or whether they're using the condiment as a dipping sauce for their egg rolls or a dressing for their duck, diners can rest assured that no ducks were harmed in the making of their duck sauce.

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
Can You Really Go Blind Staring at a Solar Eclipse?
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A total solar eclipse will cut a path of totality across the United States on August 21, and eclipse mania is gripping the country. Should the wide-eyed and unprotected hazard a peek at this rare phenomenon?

NASA doesn't advise it. The truth is, a quick glance at a solar eclipse won't leave you blind. But you're not doing your peepers any favors. As NASA explains, even when 99 percent of the sun's surface is covered, the 1 percent that sneaks out around the edges is enough to damage the rod and cone cells in your retinas. As this light and radiation flood into the eye, the retina becomes trapped in a sort of solar cooker that scorches its tissue. And because your retinas don't have any pain receptors, your eyes have no way of warning you to stop.

The good news for astronomy enthusiasts is that there are ways to safely view a solar eclipse. A pair of NASA-approved eclipse glasses will block the retina-frying rays, but sunglasses or any other kind of smoked lenses cannot. (The editors at MrEclipse.com, an eclipse watchers' fan site, put shades in the "eye suicide" category.) NASA also suggests watching the eclipse indirectly through a pinhole projector, or through binoculars or a telescope fitted with special solar filters.

While it's safe to take a quick, unfiltered peek at the sun in the brief totality of a total solar eclipse, doing so during the partial phases—when the Moon is not completely covering the Sun—is much riskier.

WOULDN'T IT BE EASIER TO JUST TELL YOUR KIDS THEY WILL GO BLIND?

NASA's website tackled this question. Their short answer: that could ruin their lives.

"A student who heeds warnings from teachers and other authorities not to view the eclipse because of the danger to vision, and learns later that other students did see it safely, may feel cheated out of the experience. Having now learned that the authority figure was wrong on one occasion, how is this student going to react when other health-related advice about drugs, alcohol, AIDS, or smoking is given[?]"

This story was originally published in 2012.

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