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Page last updated at 16:30 GMT, Thursday, 16 September 2010 17:30 UK
'Greatest smell' tests audience
Dr David Gregory
Environment Correspondent BBC News

Event at the British Science Festival
The event was held at the Old Rep Theatre in Birmingham

Scientists have uncorked the "greatest smell on earth" at the British Science Festival in Birmingham.

At least that was what the audience on Wednesday evening was expecting.

In fact, it was part of a psychological experiment looking at how we all react to authority and the pressures of conformity.

The audience arrived at the Old Rep Theatre in Birmingham to the strains of a string quartet.

And then as the lights darkened, Jon Wood, from Aston University, took to a stage surrounded by all the paraphernalia of an authentic scientific lecture.

No smell

Mr Wood explained to us all about the science of smell, noses and genes - from the scent of baking bread to the smells plants give off when they are under attack by insects.

Members of the audience were given small keypads, so they could register the strength of the "greatest smell on earth" when it was finally revealed.

Mr Wood went to great lengths to build up a convincing description of the smell.

Greatest Smell on Earth event banner
Members of the audience were asked to raise their hands

He explained that it came from a newly-discovered plant and showed a fake video of the plant apparently growing in a rainforest.

And when the "extract" of the smelly and made-up plant in question, Dulcis Foetidus, finally arrived at the theatre, it was carried in by a hefty-looking security guard.

Finally the moment came when the smell would be uncorked.

Members of the audience were asked to raise their hands and also register on their keypads when they started to detect the distinctive whiff of Dulcis Foetidus wafting from the uncorked phial of liquid.

In fact, the liquid was sterile water which has no smell at all.

Soon small pockets of people in the audience began to raise their arms.

'Psychology of conformity'

In the end about a quarter of the members of the audience said they could smell something with half of them aged under 18.

Not bad for a scientifically-literate audience perhaps more alert than most to smelling something fishy.

After it was all over, Mr Wood was happy with the result.

"It comes down to the psychology of conformity. If one person puts their hand up, that starts to spread around the theatre."

Those people who said they smelt something could not believe there was nothing more than water in the small phial of liquid.

In the end we did not learn much about the "greatest smell on earth". But we did learn a lot about people.


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