earwaxAren’t you amazed at what you can produce — for good or ill? The dainty things — the nice turns of phrase, the perfect batch of heart-attack cookies, the accidentally wonderful photograph — these get pinned up for public appreciation right away. But the other things — the smelly, sitcky, somewhat disgusting and embarrassing productions — I usually throw a tissue over those. I imagine you do, too. But they are just as worthy of attention. They, too, have their marvelous qualities.

Take earwax:

You have probably heard that the definitive marker for racial category is not skin color, but earwax (actually — more specifically — how your earwax *smells*). Did you ever wonder if that was true? Did you ever wonder, as I did, so what? Who cares?

George Preti cares. George Preti works at the Monnell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, PA. He studies human and animal odors — has done for four decades. He once told NPR he’s had a particular interest in underarm odor for years. That’s right: George Preti has made a career of BO.

Preti once read a scientific paper linking BO to earwax, and it shifted his focus in life. This is the paper that actually documents the Japanese study we alluded to above: the one that found systematic racial differences in earwax in men. FTR, Asian earwax tends to be drier and has less color than white person ear wax. African people have wetter, yellowish-brown earwax. Indians (feathers, not dots), have ear wax more like Asians than anybody else’s.

The volatile compounds in the earwax give off different smells — the big three are “acidic/pungent,” “fecal,” and “sweaty feet” — and different races have these compounds in varying proportions.

His curiosity piqued (as it were), Mr Preti took the instinctive next step in this line of enquiry by coring the earwax plug of a giant blue whale. Lacking a big (whale-sized) Q-tip (not to mention opposable thumbs), this whale had lived all his life with an accumulating deposit in there. Turns out the earwax plug was just loaded with interesting environmental information: where he had been, what he had eaten, when he went through puberty, whether he had ever inhaled. All of it: stowed as molecules trapped in his earwax.

Unfortunately for Science, we humans tend to clean our ears — or at least we pick the ear wax out of them on a semi-regular basis. So the jury is out on whether any reliable ecological insights can be gleaned from our own discarded Q-Tips. But these findings still might prove useful eventually. In some other, unexpected way.

“Oh give me a break,” I hear you mutter.

But it’s true: the program Preti is part of at Monnell — the “Chemical Ecology and Communication” program — is using this knowledge to develop (among other things) “non-lethal solutions to conflicts between humans.” Stink bombs for peace!

Your tax dollars at work.

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