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The Chemistry of Truffle Stank

If you’re like most people, you’ve never gotten up close and personal with a fresh truffle. And—depending on your preferences—that might be a good thing.

A truffle is the fleshy, reproductive part of a sac fungus. The fungus lives underground, sharing a symbiotic existence with the roots of trees. When it’s time to make more fungi, the truffle portion ripens and begins giving off a strong, distinctive odor. Some people say truffles smell like heaven; others, “old socks and sex.” 

Where does that love-it-or-hate-it stench come from? It’s complicated. As Sarah Everts explains in the video above, scientists have identified hundreds of chemical compounds in the truffle’s aroma. Among them are dimethyl sulfide, which forms part of the scent of cooked cabbage, and 2-methylbutanal, which can also be found in the scent of a wet dog. Delicious. 

We may not all like the aroma, but it is there to draw us in. Attracted by the scent, animals dig up the truffle, eat it, and poop out the spores elsewhere in the forest, thus dispersing the fungus into the wider world.

That’s how it used to go, anyway. These days, the animals that dig up the truffles (mostly dogs) have to stand by while their human employers seize the smelly prize for themselves. As a rare and labor-intensive delicacy, fresh truffles can fetch more than $15,000 a pound at auction. So perhaps we shouldn’t turn our noses up at the truffle just yet.

Want more truffle trivia? Try your hand at the truffle quiz over at the Chemical & Engineering News website.

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2017 Ig Nobel Prizes Celebrate Research on How Crocodiles Affect Gambling and Other Odd Studies
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The Ig Nobel Prizes are back, and this year's winning selection of odd scientific research topics is as weird as ever. As The Guardian reports, the 27th annual awards of highly improbable studies "that first make people laugh, then make them think" were handed out on September 14 at a theater at Harvard University. The awards, sponsored by the Annals of Improbable Research, honor research you never would have thought someone would take the time (or the funding) to study, much less would be published.

The 2017 highlights include a study on whether cats can be both a liquid and a solid at the same time and one on whether the presence of a live crocodile can impact the behavior of gamblers. Below, we present the winners from each of the 10 categories, each weirder and more delightful than the last.

PHYSICS

"For using fluid dynamics to probe the question 'Can a Cat Be Both a Solid and a Liquid?'"

Winner: Marc-Antoine Fardin

Study: "On the Rheology of Cats," published in Rheology Bulletin [PDF]

ECONOMICS

"For their experiments to see how contact with a live crocodile affects a person's willingness to gamble."

Winners: Matthew J. Rockloff and Nancy Greer

Study: "Never Smile at a Crocodile: Betting on Electronic Gaming Machines is Intensified by Reptile-Induced Arousal," published in the Journal of Gambling Studies

ANATOMY

"For his medical research study 'Why Do Old Men Have Big Ears?'"

Winner: James A. Heathcote

Study: "Why Do Old Men Have Big Ears?" published in the BMJ

BIOLOGY

"For their discovery of a female penis, and a male vagina, in a cave insect."

Winners: Kazunori Yoshizawa, Rodrigo L. Ferreira, Yoshitaka Kamimura, and Charles Lienhard (who delivered their acceptance speech via video from inside a cave)

Study: "Female Penis, Male Vagina and Their Correlated Evolution in a Cave Insect," published in Current Biology

FLUID DYNAMICS

"For studying the dynamics of liquid-sloshing, to learn what happens when a person walks backwards while carrying a cup of coffee."

Winner: Jiwon Han

Study: "A Study on the Coffee Spilling Phenomena in the Low Impulse Regime," published in Achievements in the Life Sciences

NUTRITION

"For the first scientific report of human blood in the diet of the hairy-legged vampire bat."

Winners: Fernanda Ito, Enrico Bernard, and Rodrigo A. Torres

Study: "What is for Dinner? First Report of Human Blood in the Diet of the Hairy-Legged Vampire Bat Diphylla ecaudata," published in Acta Chiropterologica

MEDICINE

"For using advanced brain-scanning technology to measure the extent to which some people are disgusted by cheese."

Winners: Jean-Pierre Royet, David Meunier, Nicolas Torquet, Anne-Marie Mouly, and Tao Jiang

Study: "The Neural Bases of Disgust for Cheese: An fMRI Study," published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience

COGNITION

"For demonstrating that many identical twins cannot tell themselves apart visually."

Winners: Matteo Martini, Ilaria Bufalari, Maria Antonietta Stazi, and Salvatore Maria Aglioti

Study: "Is That Me or My Twin? Lack of Self-Face Recognition Advantage in Identical Twins," published in PLOS One

OBSTETRICS

"For showing that a developing human fetus responds more strongly to music that is played electromechanically inside the mother's vagina than to music that is played electromechanically on the mother's belly."

Winners: Marisa López-Teijón, Álex García-Faura, Alberto Prats-Galino, and Luis Pallarés Aniorte

Study: "Fetal Facial Expression in Response to Intravaginal Music Emission,” published in Ultrasound

PEACE PRIZE

"For demonstrating that regular playing of a didgeridoo is an effective treatment for obstructive sleep apnoea and snoring."

Winners: Milo A. Puhan, Alex Suarez, Christian Lo Cascio, Alfred Zahn, Markus Heitz, and Otto Braendli

Study: "Didgeridoo Playing as Alternative Treatment for Obstructive Sleep Apnoea Syndrome: Randomised Controlled Trial," published by the BMJ

Congratulations, all.

[h/t The Guardian]

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Here's Why Your Phone Battery Can Explode
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When you hear about exploding batteries, what comes to mind? If you're like most, you think of the Galaxy Note 7 smartphone, the disastrous Samsung device that was recalled last October (and subsequently banned from airlines) after a string of reports indicated it was catching fire.

While Samsung might be the latest—and certainly, most public—example, it is far from the first. This phenomenon in which a battery spontaneously explodes is called thermal runaway, and it has been plaguing the consumer market for as long as lithium-ion batteries have been around.

There are a few reasons for thermal runaway: overcharging, overheating, physical damage, and, as is often the case, faulty manufacturing. (The Samsung Galaxy explosions were caused by overheating and faulty manufacturing by two separate battery suppliers.)

So, one lithium-ion battery factory explosion and several third-degree burn victims later, why haven't we figured out a safer way to engineer these smart devices? Well, in short: A solution is well underway. A group of researchers are currently troubleshooting a battery they believe to be noncombustible, longer-lasting, and capable of holding three times more energy.

To learn more on the chemistry behind this phenomenon, watch the video below from Reactions:

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