Scientists have decoded the smell of Cleopatra’s perfume

A version of this story appeared in CNN’s science bulletin Wonder Theory. To get it delivered to your inbox, sign up for free here.


As a child in the 1980s, I visited the Jorvik Viking Center in York, England, to learn about Scandinavian sailors. The museum stank – and the stench was deliberate.

Visitors to the attraction were – and still are – treated to the unsavory smells of a northern village: a cesspool, dead fish and wood smoke. The trip stuck in my memory, perhaps because the nose plays a unique role in forming memories.

At that time, curators largely had to guess the smell of a 10th-century Viking settlement. Today, scientists are able to decode past scents with much greater precision, using new and powerful biomolecular approaches to resurrect some particularly distinct ephemeral treasures.

The challenge of retrieving past smells is figuring out how to capture an ephemeral phenomenon.

Techniques such as chromatography, a process of separating the components of a mixture, and mass spectrometry, which can detect compounds by calculating the weights of different molecules, allow scientists to study the residue left on the burners of incense, perfume bottles and food storage jars to replenish the smells of substances they once held.

Some historians and chemists recreate the perfume Cleopatra may have used based on recipes recorded in Egyptian texts and inscriptions on temple walls. A recipe studied by researcher Sean Coughlin of the Czech Academy of Sciences stated that ancient perfumers heated the oil for 10 days and 10 nights before infusing it with certain woods.

“It was a big mystery to us,” Coughlin said. “If you’ve ever cooked in oil for 10 days, it stinks.” But he soon discovered there was a method to the madness.

According to a new study of lunar soil samples collected by China’s Chang’e-5 mission, the first such specimens have returned to Earth since the Apollo flights of the 1970s.

Chang’e-5, an unmanned probe, made a soft landing on the Earth-facing northwest corner of the moon and brought a sample of regolith, or rocky lunar soil, home in 2020.

Chinese scientists believe that the glass beads may have formed as a result of the impact of asteroids on the lunar surface. Understanding how water is stored on the moon is helpful: this knowledge could point future lunar astronauts to potential resources that could one day be converted into drinking water or even rocket fuel.

Scientists in Israel have discovered a hidden realm beyond our own sensory bubble.

Recordings from a number of different plant species have revealed that they emit a popping or clicking sound that is not detectable by the human ear. It’s a bit like popcorn or bubble wrap, and the plants make more noise when they’re dry or their stems have been cut.

There is no evidence that the noise produced by plants is intentional or a form of communication, but the sounds could convey useful information to other animals such as insects, bats or moths.

Researchers have found an unexpected ingredient in paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and other Old Masters from the 16th to early 18th centuries. These influential artists used protein, specifically egg yolk, in their painting, according to a new study.

Traces of protein residue have long been detected in classic oil paintings, but experts believed it was the result of contamination over centuries. Now scientists believe the inclusion was deliberate.

Mixing paint with yellow could have had several lasting effects, including extending the life of expensive color pigments and avoiding a crinkle effect evident in some very famous works. This discovery could help restorers better preserve ancient works of art.

Human noise pollution disturbs wildlife on land and in the oceans. The sounds we make can affect how animals communicate, their reproductive behavior or where they choose to hunt.

A species of lizard that only exists in one corner of Colorado has evolved a unique coping mechanism for its noisy environment near the US Army’s Fort Carson base in Colorado Springs.

When researchers recently examined blood samples from these lizards, they detected elevated levels of stress caused by the din of low-flying fighter jets, transport planes and helicopters. The research team also found that the creatures moved less and ate more when aircraft noise was present.

It is unclear how this stress eating might affect lizard populations in the long term.

Wait, don’t miss these gripping stories:

— Take a look at 10 searing photos that woke the world up to the climate crisis.

— An Australian startup has designed a meatball that incorporates part of an extinct animal’s DNA.

– Frank Rubio is about to break the record for the longest mission by an American astronaut, but that was not the original plan.

— The Hubble Space Telescope captured stunning images of Jupiter and Uranus that look different over time.

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