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Science stories

A nose’s purpose

Other than to boop

Some noses are wide, some are narrow, others are crooked and a few are straight and cute, while the special ones are boopable and belong to non-humans.

The most boopable.

Aside from adding a bit of extra on our faces, the nose is an essential sensory organ, one that allows us to breathe in oxygen-rich air. It’s part of the respiratory system and other than granting the sense of smell, it’s also crucial in taste (try eating something yummy and holding your nose at the same time). In humans, noses are extruding from the face because we spend a lot of time upright, in comparison with our gorilla cousins, so they act as umbrellas to prevent rain from entering. If you ever wondered why Voldemort only had slits where his nose was supposed to be, now you know; he probably didn’t spend much time in the rain.

When looking at our reflections in the mirror, we may start noticing what an abnormal thing our nose is, why does it have to be so fancy and -oh, the sheer size of the nostrils!- how could anyone ever find us attractive? Don’t panic and please, do not make an appointment for cosmetic surgery. Your nose is more important than you give it credit for.

Matchmaker

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In the animal kingdom, scent is one of the traits that can attract a mate, explaining partially the butt-sniffing rituals observed in dog parks and other meeting places. Pheromones are chemical secretions used to attract mates of the same species, and since it happens in the natural world, it’s no surprise that it occurs in human relationships as well. Some of the first and most popular experimentations with this notion in humans include sniffing of sweaty t-shirts (yuck) in search of the most attractive one.

There’s dispute over the true role of pheromones, or even their existence, in human entanglements, especially when you consider that a person’s signature smell is more often a combination of body wash, shampoo, fabric conditioner, fragrance and any other scented product they may be using. Nevertheless, there’s evidence of attraction based on the underlying scents that characterize us, and especially with regards to women, these are also associated with the stages of ovulation cycles. Although a verdict has not been reached, chemical romances are definitely not out of question.

Alarm

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Our noses can pick up smells through sensors, or olfactory receptors, located in the nasal cavity. Whereas some substances can lead to pleasantries (see above), others can be warning signs of upcoming danger. Being able to smell smoke, harmful gases, or expired food, may seem rudimental to a person with a well-functioning nose, but not so much to those lacking this innate alarm. If parchment paper burns while something’s grilling in the oven and you’re scent-deprived, you either have to be watching it live and intervene on time, or catch the reruns when the fire department arrives. Like hearing and vision, smell too works as an early warning system and when it’s not functioning properly, we should be taking precautions.

Take for instance the sniffing e-nose, which is an electronic device capable of recognizing specific smells based on patterns of chemical composition, temperature and air pressure changes (did you know that alcohol vapour from your beer glass increases temperature and lowers air pressure?). This breathalyzer technology can be used in disease detection, deciphering potentially hazardous breath fingerprints, and is capable to identify asthma, COPD, lung cancer and diabetes.

Homeostasis

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The nose can regulate temperature, humidity and purity of the air that reaches the lungs. As soon as air is breathed in through the nose, it’s efficiently warmed to temperatures that match our body’s core temperature, it’s humidified and cleansed. The nasal mucosa captures the bad stuff, wraps them up in mucus and sends them off for subsequent treatment in the body’s waste management systems (we swallow it and the acids in our stomach dissolve them). Breathing through the mouth and prolonged use of air conditioning dries out our mucosal layers, which weakens our organism’s protection against viruses, among others. So don’t be disgusted by your mucus, but be grateful for your body’s gross abilities to fight off intruders.

Mnemonic

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You’re downtown, walking your dog without a care in the world other than his poop consistency, a lady heading in the opposite direction passes by you, and all of a sudden you’re travelling back in time, with that friend of yours that used to wear the same perfume with this stranger. Our sense of smell is closely linked to our memories, and the nose’s anatomy and proximity to the brain’s control room for memory, the limbic system, is largely responsible for triggering reactions when familiar scents are around us. If our sense of smell survives Covid-19 or trauma induced injury on our snout (wear a helmet when you’re biking), old age might take it away from us anyway. But worry not, because the more we practice sniffing, the stronger our sniffing gets.

Take care of your nose and it will serve you back, regulating bodily functions, preventing dangerous situations and safeguarding your access to memories you don’t even know you have. Heck, if you’re lucky enough, it could even get you a cuddle muffin to spend the winter with.

By JoanK

Nerd Supreme.

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