Journal: News & Comment

Saturday, May 27, 2006
# 10:14:00 AM:

How little we know

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SpearsI just listened to the podcast edition of the 30-year-running CBC Radio science program "Quirks and Quarks," and it reinforced how little we still know about the world.

Aside from the big-picture stories on happiness, blindness, and plate tectonics, the last story, though small, was a complete flip-around from my (and most people's) previous understanding of the topic.

It was about what your urine smells like after you eat asparagus. For years, scientists and others thought (and I had always heard) that some people metabolized particular sulphur compounds in asparagus into small sulphur-containing molecules, which generate a foul smell when those people urinated. Conversely, I understood, other people didn't make those chemicals, probably because of genetic differences.

That turns out to be totally wrong. Everyone secretes the smelly compounds. The difference is that—probably, still, for genetic reasons—only about half the population can smell them. (And yes, I'm in that half.)


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