Science Articles


  1. "Natural Substances Power Perfume" (pub. 2/28/94)
  2. "Kirkwood Observatory Has Long History At IU" (pub. 4/17/95)

 Natural Substances Power Perfume

Americans shell out millions of dollars a year to smell like something they're not, dabbing on perfume and splashing on aftershave in the eternal quest to attract the opposite gender.
But does perfume really work? Sure, a little eau de toilet makes you smell nice, but does it make you ... sexy? Will Red or Drakkar Noir weave a scented spell that enthralls the object of your desire?
Maybe, maybe not.
IU psychology professor James Craig doesn't think that fragrances by themselves can make a person more attractive to a member of their favored gender.
"It's pretty clear that much of peoples' responses to perfume and other smells has got to be learned," Craig said.
Smell is a very powerful memory trigger, and past associations often dictate how a person will respond to a given scent, he said.
For instance, if you're a woman who's had a rotten relationship with a guy who wore English Leather, chances are that if you meet a man at a party who's wearing the stuff, your nose will tell you to run away.
Conversely, if your first true love put on Polo before he took you out, you might find yourself subtly attracted to new men who wear that cologne.
"Culture and conditioning play an important part in how we perceive odors," agreed Milos Novotny, a professor of chemistry at IU.
For example, while most people enjoy the scents of both pizza and violets, few would be interested in a cologne that smells like a pepperoni pie. Perfumes contain scents from blooms and not bakeries because flowers are symbols for things such as life, fertility and romance in most human cultures.
But Novotny added people's reactions to perfume is more than just conditioning. There are some odors, such as the rich scent of roses or the sweet smell of ripe apples, that we naturally enjoy because of our genetic heritage.
When humans were evolving millions of years ago, those that were attracted to the lush scents of flowers and ripe fruit got a better diet and therefore had more and healthier children than those proto-humans whose malfunctioning sniffers led them to eat hard, unripe fruits or rotting meat.
The proto-humans who benefitted from their good sense of smell eventually evolved into modern humans. Although modern life has nearly eliminated the need for a sharp nose, we've retained our ancestor's attraction to certain scents.
But Novotny added that we've apparently inherited a few other smell-related traits from our primitive ancestors.
Many animals, such as mice and pigs, exude chemicals called pheromones that they use to communicate things such as a readiness to mate. Pheromones are known to influence the behavior and reproductive cycles of other members of their species that are exposed to the chemicals.
Novotny said that while no scientist has shown that humans produce pheromones, "some pheromone-like reactions exist in humans, such as women living in dormitories getting synchronous menstrual cycles."
Because of this, Novotny said that it is possible that some substances in perfume could act like pheromones in humans and thus heighten a person's sexual attractiveness.
"Certainly, this is an area which has been insufficiently explored," Novotny said. "It's possible that the perfume industry may know more about all this than they're telling the general public."
What could be in a perfume that might act like a pheromone?
Well, pheromones, for one thing.
"I know they (synthetic pheromones) were put in Jovan a few years back," said perfumer Keith Pierson. "But to my knowledge, it was just a fad."
Pierson, who is the lab manager for Belle-Aire, Inc., added that some perfume ingredients have been derived from secretions that animals use to mark their territories. These animal-derived perfume notes include civet, castorium, and musk.
Civet is an extract from the skunk-like spray of the civet cat. Castorium comes from the peri-anal glands of beavers, and musk is derived from a gland in the genitalia of the male musk deer.
As befits their origins, these substances smell pretty foul in their normal state. But Pierson said that if they're diluted to a 10-percent or lower solution, they impart a pleasant warming effect to a perfume or cologne.
Pierson isn't sure if civet and musk have an effect on humans or not, but said they definitely attract other species.
"If you put them on yourself, half the animals in the neighborhood will follow you around," he said.
Women can recognize the smell of musk whereas three-quarters of all men cannot, he said. Accordingly, most men's colognes contain musk while few perfumes do.
But those concerned with animal rights need not worry that a beaver or deer died to make their perfume, provided they buy reasonably-priced brands.
Pierson said that all but the most expensive perfumes contain synthetic versions of the chemicals derived from animals.
"The industry came out with synthetics to replace the naturals because the naturals are so expensive," he said. "Absolute civet goes for about $3000 a pound these days."
He added that the synthetics are easier to work with and lack the foul edge of the originals.
Pheromones aside, perfumes do smell nice, and many of us will enjoy them even if they don't help us get a date. But people should remember that shopping for perfume or cologne is very much like shopping for clothes: you've got to try them on to see if they fit.
"Body chemistry makes as much difference in the fragrance as the original ingredients," said Harry Hugar, a perfumer at The French Connection in Bloomington. "Probably, if you had twenty women in an office who were wearing Giorgio, only three of them would smell alike."
Because of this, it's not a good idea to try to buy perfume for somebody else, Hugar said. Gifts of perfume can also backfire by triggering allergies or bad memories.
"You yourself may like a fragrance, but a close friend of yours won't even be able to wear it," he said.
And finally, when you combine body chemistry with the pheromone mystery, it may be that the most alluring fragrance you can wear is the one you make for yourself.

SIDEBAR for "Natural Substances Power Perfume":

Like a musical composer, a perfumer designs fragrances by combining many notes, or individual scents, with fixatives that keep the scents from dissipating. Many perfumes are quite complex and are the result of the skillful mixing of dozens of notes.

Notes can be grouped into scent families called "series." For instance, musk, castoreum, and civet oil all fall in the animal series. Some of these notes can be obtained from very different sources. For example, carnation notes can also be extracted from clove oil.

About 60 percent of all notes used in the perfume industry are now synthetics, but naturals are used if their extraction is inexpensive, or if a suitable synthetic counterpart is not available. Natural perfume notes can be divided into five categories based on how they are extracted from their sources:

    Concretes, thought to be the purest scents, are obtained by steeping flowers or spices in a solvent that draws out the fragrant oils.
    Absolutes are obtained by mixing a concrete with an alcohol and then evaporating the mixture. Most perfumes are made with absolutes. The alcohol that is taken off during the evaporation carries with it some fragrance and is often added to colognes or lotions.
    Tinctures are made by chopping a fragrant substance in alcohol. This mixture is then heated and filtered. Civet, castoreum, and musk are often used in tincture form.
    Distilled oils are obtained by exposing flowers or herbs to very hot steam. The steam draws off fragrant oils, which rise to the surface when the steam is condensed. Distillation is the cheapest and therefore most common way of extracting scents, but the heat can destroy some delicate fragrances.
    Expressed oils come directly from plants. An example of this is the fragrant oil that can be squeezed out of orange peels.


 Kirkwood Observatory Has Long History at IU

Most people never notice Kirkwood Observatory. Hiding in a wooded hollow behind the Law School, it's nearly invisible from the street. At night, this shyness turns sinister; make a sharp turn up the crumbling brick walk, and a surreal scene greets you: a glowing, demon-red window with the observatory rising behind, the dome a faint, flying-saucer gray against the black sky.
But step inside the observatory during a Wednesday night open house, and the sinister feel of the surrounding area is instantly banished as a graduate astronomy student emerges to greet you. The foyer is a small, spare room decorated with bright posters of planets and nebulae. Follow the grad student up two flights of narrow wooden stairs and soon you're bathed in the crimson light from the bulb above the window; the light is red to let visitors' night vision kick in while they navigate the last few steps to the domed room that houses the observatory's 12" refracting telescope.
Once inside, you see the small room is already crowded with people who want a peek at a planet or the moon. A black-and-white computer screen glows near the door, displaying celestial coordinates. The 12" telescope looks like a giant version of a good backyard scope, instantly familiar to anyone who grew up with a starhound parent or sibling. And, as with a backyard scope, it often requires bent-back contortions to peer through the eyepiece.
The scope doesn't make a sound as the students turn it to fix on a distant star, but the dome's motor roars like the Garbage Disposal of the Gods as the slit grinds around to align with the scope.
The whole observatory smells like a very old house, smells like a place with a long history.
Dr. Frank Edmondson shares much of that history: he's been a part of IU's astronomy department for more than half a century. He first came to IU in 1929 as a freshman, later serving as the observatory's director and as the head of the department. He retired from full-time teaching in 1983.
Edmondson, a spry, strong-voiced gentleman who still keeps office hours at 82, is more than happy to talk about the observatory's history.
"John A. Miller founded the astronomy department in 1895, so the astronomy department will be 100 years old next year," he says. "Well, Miller wanted to build an observatory, so after the department was founded, he was able to persuade the state to put up the funds to build the Kirkwood Observatory, which was constructed in 1900 and dedicated in 1901."
Old construction records show that the observatory was built for $7517, which Edmondson believes would translate to about $750,000 today. $6516 of the total cost went toward building the telescope; the 12" lens was designed by the John A. Brashear company, one of the nation's top optical firms of the day.
"John Miller's purpose in building the observatory was to do research on visual double stars," Edmondson says. "If you look through a telescope and you see a pair of stars, one going around the other, if you measure them carefully, you can figure out what their orbits are. That's the kind of work Miller wanted to do with the 12"; it was built specifically for visual double star research."
At the time, the Kirkwood Observatory's 12" telescope was high technology; it was the largest in the state, and there weren't many bigger telescopes around the country. Most of the observatory was made of wood, and Edmondson remembers a time when astronomy students had to crank the dome around by hand.
But telescope technology improved and Miller left IU in 1906, so the Kirkwood Observatory began to lose its scientific edge.
"It was an active research scope until about 1910, and thereafter it has been a teaching scope," says Edmondson.
And in that capacity, the telescope still does a very good job.
According to Martin Burkhead, the observatory's current director, the 12" is excellent for viewing brighter objects like the moon and the larger planets.
"It is a wonderful telescope for what it is used for," Burkhead says.
But since 1910, IU astronomers have used other telescopes for their research. In 1948, Dr. Goethe Link, an Indianapolis physician, gave the University an observatory near Mooresville that houses a 36" reflecting telescope. In 1966, IU built an $80,000 robotic telescope in the Morgan-Monroe state forest.
Though these other telescopes eclipse the 12" in the research arena, the astronomy department has not neglected its first observatory.
Far from it. In 1980, the astronomy department spent about $130,000 to recondition the dome and give the Kirkwood Observatory a second eye to the heavens: a solar telescope.
The solar scope does not reside inside the dome; instead, it points out at the North Star from the side of the observatory, looking very much like a giant white Q-tip.
Being a reflecting telescope, it uses mirrors instead of a lens to create an image. George Turner, the astronomy department's computer systems manager, says that refracting scopes like the 12" are designed to look at objects in a night sky, and their lenses are used more to collect and amplify the light of those objects than to magnify their images.
Obviously, sunlight doesn't need any amplification.
"You can think of the solar telescope as a pretty fancy pinhole camera," Turner says.
He says that both telescopes are used extensively for astronomy courses and educational programs for the general public. The solar telescope is hooked up to one of the observatory's SUN workstations as well as a TV monitor.
"We also have cameras we can put on the telescopes, and we can take pictures with our computers," he says. "That allows our students to analyze real astronomic data, and we can use the images for public demonstrations."
"During the solar eclipse we had in May, we were using the solar telescope and taking pictures that we put on the Internet ... people could view the photos on Gopher as we were taking them," Turner says. "We had a bunch of people hitting our archives from all over the world."
Martin Burkhead agrees that the observatory is an invaluable educational tool.
"It's a wonderful buffer between the university and the community," he says. "Astronomy is one of those sciences the public can truly relate to. To me, one of the nicest things about the observatory's open house is that it's truly open. It is one of the few places where everyone, town and gown, can get together and enjoy science."
Despite its advancing age, Burkhead believes the observatory will be useful for many years to come. "I think the Kirkwood Observatory will be around for a long, long time."