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September 29, 2002

Pheromones

All right! One of my books for 2002 is now out: Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Universe (my other book for 2002, The Rough Guide to the Universe, now looks like it's going to be released in 2003. Which is good -- too much product released at the same time is no good, especially when both books have the word "Universe" in the title). Of course, I advise you all to run out and buy this book as soon as possible -- if you can't wait to get to a bookstore or are otherwise incapacitated (you're being held down by stoats, say), then head on over to Amazon.com. I'm all about facilitating purchases.

The Uncle John books, if you're not familiar with the series, are compilations of short articles (sized just right for light bathroom reading, hence the title); this particular one has a science theme -- not just astronomy, but also health and earth sciences. I should note for the sake of clarity that I am not the "Uncle John" of the title: Indeed, technically, this is not my book at all. I am but a mere contributor. However, I wrote 40 articles in the book, which by page count is about a quarter of its total, and I think what I've written is pretty interesting. And I have very high regard for the Uncle John's folks, so even if I hadn't written a fair chunk of this book, I'd want you to go out and buy it anyway.

So what did I write about? Here is a sampling of the titles of articles I wrote for this one:

*Cool Astronomical Terms to Make Friends and Impress People
*Read a Weather Map Like a Pro
*How to Make a Black Hole
*"You Think I'm Mad, Don't You?" (Mad scientist movies)
*The Body's Second String (Little-known organs and systems)
*Big Moments in Forensics
*10 SF Books Even Nongeeks Would Love

And there are 33 others spread around the book. No, I'm not going to tell you which ones they are. I want you to guess.

In fact, let's make this a contest. Go out and buy Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Universe (or, if you're cheap and can weather annoyed bookstore staff, thumb through it at the store) and then send me the list of articles you think I wrote. The person who gets the most correct will win a John Scalzi Multimedia Gift Pack, which includes an autographed copy of The Rough Guide to the Universe (which is solely written by yours truly), an autographed copy of The Rough Guide to Money Online (a classic of the online money management genre!) a personally-burned CD compilation of Musicforheadphones plus extra tracks, and an electronic copy of Old Man's War, the novel I'm currently shopping around. It's a fabulous gift pack with a street value of, oh, I don't know, $28 or thereabouts. The winner will get it sent whenever it is I get my author copies of Rough Guide to the Universe.

The rules: First, you have to send your list of guesses to me by December 31, 2002. Second, put "Universe Article Guesses" as your e-mail subject header, so I can filter them to a special mailbox and keep track of them. Third, if you were on the list of readers that I sent the Uncle John articles to while I was writing them, obviously you're not eligible (and if you are one of these people, don't tell anyone the titles of the articles; that's just not fair). In the event of a tie, I'll pick a winner by flipping a coin or whatever. No purchase necessary, but you'll look fairly cheap if you don't.

To give you a taste of the tone of the articles in the book, all this week I'll be posting articles that I wrote for Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Universe but which didn't make the final cut for whatever reason (4 didn't make it; 40 did. I have no complaints). The first one is below. I'll post another on Tuesday, one on Wednesday and one on Thursday (after which I'll be out for a few days while I travel). So enjoy, and good luck with the contest.

***

You Smell Great!

Thinking about getting that pheromone-laden cologne? Hold that thought.

There's a new special ingredient to cologne these days: Pheromones -- chemicals your body secretes, or so you're being told, that can help you attract the sort of hot mate that will get all slobbery with little or no prompting (or even noticeable social skill) on your part. And you think to yourself Finally. That whole flowers-and-chocolate-and-pretending-to-be-
interested-in-the-conversation thing was killing me. And off you go, to buy your pheromone cologne and let the chemicals do the talking for you. Well, before you pull out your credit card, let's have a quick reality check about pheromones, humans, and you.

First off: Yes, pheromones really do exist, and they are chemicals that living things give off, not unlike a scent, in order to communicate with other members of their species. These pheromone communications are all over the board: Ants and termites, for example, will use pheromones to lay down a trail that other ants and termites can follow. Queen bees use pheromones to signal bee pupae that they're going to be worker bees and not queens themselves. Wounded minnows will release pheromones to alert the rest of the school of fish to danger, a sort of fish version of the wounded soldier who says arrrrgh, I've been shot, go on without me.

However, many species use pheromones specifically to attract sexual partners. Insects are famous for this: Certain species of moths are so sensitive to a female moths' pheromones that just a couple of molecules of it can get them running (well, flying. You know what we mean). Male wild boars have a pheromone that will actually cause a female of the breed to lock her hind legs into a sexually receptive position: No flowers-and-chocolate routine needed there. Even non-animals get into the act: Fungi, slime molds and algae all use pheromones to makes themselves super-sexy to other fungi, slime molds and algae. It's not love, the fungi/slime mold/algae says to its excited new friend. It's just pheromones.

So there you have it: Pheromones = instant sex appeal, right? Sure, if you're a slime mold. But it's never been proven that humans use pheromones to make themselves more attractive to the opposite sex. In fact, until 1998, it wasn't even clear that humans were receptive to pheromones at all. There were several reasons for this, not the least of which was that the organ used by many animals to receive pheromone signals -- a thing called the vomeronasal organ -- is all but non-existent in humans. What small vomeronasal organs we have are tiny notches tucked away in our noses, and it's not at all clear that they're connected to anything.

What changed that was a study performed at the University of Chicago by researchers Martha K. McClintock and Kathleen Stern. While an undergraduate at the U of C in the early 70s, McClintock noted that the menstrual cycles of the women in her dormitory eventually synced up (it is, by the way, very typical U of C undergraduate behavior to notice this sort of thing), and suspected pheromones might have something to do with it. To check this, she collected sweat samples from nine women (by having them wear gauze in their armpits), and noted where in their menstrual cycle those women were. Then she took those sweat samples and daubed them under the noses of 20 other women. Yes, yes, total icks-ville. Science is not for the squeamish.

What she found was that the women who sniffed the sweat had their menstrual cycles noticeably lengthened or shortened, depending on what sweat they were sniffing. Sweat from women early in their cycle caused the sniffers to shorten their own cycles, while sweat from women later in their cycle had an opposite effect. There you had it: The first strong indication that humans can and do pay attention to pheromones. McClintock's study left open many questions, such as how exactly the pheromones did their signaling, or even whether pheromones would work on other people who weren't actively sniffing sweaty gauze. But those are details to be worked out.

There are some indications that humans use pheromones (or something very much like them) in helping to determine mates -- in other studies, women appear to be attracted to the smell of men who have immune systems that are different from their own (this study involved women sniffing sweaty shirts). But again, it's important to note that so far, there's no conclusive study that specifically identifies a human pheromone that actually makes one sex more attractive to the other sex (or one sex attractive to the same sex, if you want to go that direction).

What does this mean for your pheromone-laced cologne? Basically that it's a waste of money. The only thing we're reasonably certain human pheromones do is manipulate the menstrual cycle, and generally speaking, that's not something you really want to fiddle with, for everyone's piece of mind. Your best course of action at this point is to stick with your current cologne and try to brush up on your social skills. Hey, people have been finding love the old-fashioned way for millennial, without the use of pheromones (so far as they knew). It could work for you too. Flowers and chocolate can't hurt either.

Posted by john at September 29, 2002 09:04 PM

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