What’s that smell in the air right before it rains? I’ve lived all over the country, and there’s no variation … when you smell it, you know rain is on its way. —Nicky, Mount Prospect, Illinois
The smell is called petrichor, the scent of rain falling on dry earth. It’s caused by a couple of compounds in the soil, one of them known as geosmin, or “earth-smell,” a term I found wonderfully Tolkienesque. (“O geosmin! O earth-smell! A Elbereth Gilthoniel!”) However, the Straight Dope copy desk recoiled, noting that any such reading would necessitate a vulgar conjunction of Elvish, pseudo-Anglo-Saxon and Greek. We’ll therefore refrain from literary commentary and proceed in strict accord with science.
The human nose, not normally considered a particularly acute instrument, is extraordinarily sensitive to geosmin; we can detect it at a level of just ten parts in a trillion. Today, this is mostly an annoyance, since in our supercilious age, many prefer the fragrance of machine oil and ozone to the sweet smell of the planet. But I’ll venture to suggest it was important in an era long past.
Geosmin is produced by several types of bacteria and algae, which manufacture a volatile compound that can be kicked up when soil is disturbed, such as by gardening, plowing or a hard rain. When a storm threatens and a few molecules of geosmin waft your way, that signifies rain is falling to windward and, in the fullness of time, will fall on you.
Because we’re so attuned to it, a little geosmin goes a long way, and a lot can be decidedly unpleasant. Geosmin and another fragrant soil-borne compound, 2-methylisoborneol, or 2-MIB, can make wine taste earthy, water yucky, and fish foul. (Catfish are especially susceptible.) The scent of geosmin may tell farmers their soil is healthy, but this is one area where a lot of non-farmers would be content to leave their ignorance intact.
Repellent though some find it, geosmin seems to be harmless to most animals, and in itself doesn’t signify that anything toxic is brewing. In fact, nobody really knows what it does or why we’re so sensitive to it, and most scientists, by nature practical folk, decline to speculate. But a scarcity of facts has never bothered me, and in this case, we’ve got a sliver of information to go on. A couple of U.K. scientists, wondering how Bactrian camels in the Gobi desert were supposedly able to sniff out water from 50 miles away, proposed that the animals were actually smelling geosmin carried by the wind from oases.
A survival trait so obviously useful to camels would likewise be advantageous to us. Long ago, we were mainly nomads wandering in arid regions. It’s easy to imagine a parched band trudging mapless in the desert, looking for the next watering hole. Then the breeze picks up, and what do they detect? Had they lacked the appropriate olfactory adaptation, nothing, with possibly disastrous consequences. As it was, if they were fortunate, they might smell the faint odor of moist earth, and with it the promise that they’d live another day.
I just recently finished spinning around a lot at my friend’s house and feel very dizzy even after two hours. This got me thinking: Is it possible to die from spinning for too long? Or would you just have one of the worst hangovers ever and possibly splurge your inner contents? Science demands an answer! —Jay Meza
That’s how you and your friends like to pass the time, Jay—spinning around a lot? Well, it beats snorting PCP and thinking you’re Jesus. However, the practice isn’t without its perils. As a general matter, the worst that could happen is you fall down, hurl or look like a putz. But if you’re not healthy to begin with, there’s a nonzero chance you could die.
We know this because a couple people have, although at an amusement park, not at home. Specifically, two people expired after going on a Disney World ride called Mission: Space, which subjects you to sustained centrifugal acceleration of just over 2 g. While this is less g-force than is generated by other rides, including numerous roller coasters, those rides typically produce their peak force for shorter intervals. In one case, a four-year-old boy passed out while riding Mission: Space and later died as a result of a pre-existing heart condition; in the other, a 49-year-old woman suffered a fatal stroke as a complication of high blood pressure.
Then again, astronauts and others undergoing centrifuge training as part of the (real) space program endured spins of up to 32 g with nothing worse than mild sinus pain. One scientist, knowing sustained acceleration would substantially quicken a Mars trip, successfully withstood a constant 2 g for 24 hours. So unless you’re adding some twist to your spinning that I really don’t want to know about, you should be OK.
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