by Will Schreiber

Can I smell as well as a bloodhound?

Bloodhounds can smell whether or not a human has merely touched a Coke bottle.

When Richard Feynman discovered this fact in a Science article, he decided to try it himself. He handed his wife a six-pack and told her to handle one of the bottles for a couple minutes while he was out of the room.

When he came back in, he immediately picked the bottle she’d touched. “As soon as you put it up near your face, you could smell it was dampish.”1

He repeated the experiment with coworkers by telling them to take books off a shelf, open them, and put them back. He then proceeded to correctly guess which books they had touched based on smell alone. They were so surprised that they thought he was pulling a “confederate” magic trick.

Bloodhounds, of course, have a much better sense of smell than humans. They can easily follow the path a human has traveled across a carpet. When Feynman got down on all fours and tried to sniff his friend’s trail, he failed.

But bloodhounds having a good sense of smell doesn’t mean humans have a bad sense of smell.

My entire life I’ve been amazed whenever a dog has smelled my hand and then started barking because they knew I’d been cheating on them.2 But not once have I thought to hold my hands up to my nose to see if I, too, could smell the difference.

I do this all over the place in my life. I see art friends have painted, read stories like The Egg, hear analogies from heroes of mine, and think I could never come up with that.

But I usually don’t get down on all fours and press my nose to the carpet. Maybe I should more often.

  1. From the “Testing Bloodhounds” chapter in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!
  2. In his book experiment, Feynman remarkably paired the books to the people who touched them. He explains how humans hands also have quite distinct smells. Imagine a smoker’s hand.