Chemical fingerprints: Sensing emotions in a theater and life across interstellar space

article C EEE x

It’s one of the first sensing phenomena to appear in evolution. Dogs use it to sniff out food, potential mates, or trace amounts of explosives; we use it to to enjoy meals; astronomers are trying to apply it to determine whether distant planets harbor life; and soon industry will be using it as a window into the your emotions.

We’re talking about chemical fingerprints—combinations of different chemical compounds in the environment that can be sensed as taste or smell, or picked out by special instruments. The newest application is the utilization of changes in levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases to determine whether a test audience watching a movie, or television, is amused, angry or scared.

Research from the Max Planck Institute in Germany published recently in Scientific Reports has demonstrated that people watching movies release CO2 and a common organic compound called isoprene in specific ratios that correlate with whether they are excited, at the edges of their seats, or experiencing other emotions that change rapidly during a film.

“You hear the music and see the pictures, but you don’t realize there are chemical signals in the air,” said Jonathan Williams in an interview, an atmospheric chemist who worked on the study. “There’s an invisible concerto going on.”

By no means is one study enough to define a reliable means to sense emotions using only exhaled chemical signatures, but  “It’s something to investigate,” Williams explained. “We have scratched the surface and it’s made a funny smell.”

As atmospheric scientists, Williams and his colleagues did not begin the movie study out of a desire to help the film industry obtain emotional data more efficiently than by gauging laughter, oohs and ahhs, a the other usual metrics. What led to the new study was instead something more global: increased levels of greenhouse gases had been noticed entering the atmosphere from a soccer stadium—too much to be explained simply by the presence of a large number of people.

Related article:  Why synthetic biology is about much more than resurrecting woolly mammoths

Rather than looking at the Earth, other scientists are working on means to monitor chemical fingerprints of life in the atmospheres of distance planets. Right now, for instance, the European and Russian Space Agencies are preparing for a probe called the Exo Mars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) to get more accurate measurements methane in the Martian atmosphere than have been obtain previous by other instruments. The TGO probe will also measure water vapour, nitrogen oxides, and acetylene.

Based on the combined results of measurements for all of those gases, it will be possible for astrobiologists to make an assessment of whether microorganisms must be affecting the atmosphere of the Red Planet, but Mars is relatively close. In the years to come, NASA will also be using the James Webb Space Telescope and other instruments on the horizon to look at atmospheres of planets orbiting other stars many light years away to determine whether they harbor life. Scientists will be able to assess levels of oxygen, indicative of photosynthesis, and methane and other chemicals resulting from a plethora of other life processes—leading to oohs and ahhhs from the human population outdoing those from any new movie.

David Warmflash is an astrobiologist, physician and science writer. Follow @CosmicEvolution to read what he is saying on Twitter.

Outbreak
Outbreak Daily Digest
Biotech Facts & Fallacies
Talking Biotech
Genetics Unzipped
ft covidresponseus feature

Video: Viewpoint: The US wrote the global playbook on the coronavirus and then ignored it

A year ago, the United States was regarded as the country best prepared for a pandemic. Our government had spent ...
mag insects image superjumbo v

Disaster interrupted: Which farming system better preserves insect populations: Organic or conventional?

A three-year run of fragmentary Armageddon-like studies had primed the journalism pumps and settled the media framing about the future ...
dead bee desolate city

Are we facing an ‘Insect Apocalypse’ caused by ‘intensive, industrial’ farming and agricultural chemicals? The media say yes; Science says ‘no’

The media call it the “Insect Apocalypse”. In the past three years, the phrase has become an accepted truth of ...
globalmethanebudget globalcarbonproject cropped x

Infographic: Cows cause climate change? Agriculture scientist says ‘belching bovines’ get too much blame

A recent interview by Caroline Stocks, a UK journalist who writes about food, agriculture and the environment, of air quality ...
organic hillside sweet corn x

Organic v conventional using GMOs: Which is the more sustainable farming?

Many consumers spend more for organic food to avoid genetically modified products in part because they believe that “industrial agriculture” ...
benjamin franklin x

Are most GMO safety studies funded by industry?

The assertion that biotech companies do the research and the government just signs off on it is false ...
gmo corn field x

Do GMO Bt (insect-resistant) crops pose a threat to human health or the environment?

Bt is a bacterium found organically in the soil. It is extremely effective in repelling or killing target insects but ...
favicon

Environmental Working Group: EWG challenges safety of GMOs, food pesticide residues

Known by some as the "Environmental Worrying Group," EWG lobbies for tighter GMO legislation and famously puts out annual "dirty dozen" list of fruits and ...
m hansen

Michael Hansen: Architect of Consumers Union ongoing anti-GMO campaign

Michael K. Hansen (born 1956) is thought by critics to be the prime mover behind the ongoing campaign against agricultural biotechnology at Consumer Reports. He is an ...
News on human & agricultural genetics and biotechnology delivered to your inbox.
Optional. Mail on special occasions.
Send this to a friend