This week, I learned about how two of the most prosaic of products have turned out to have entirely unexpected benefits. Find out why scientists and nursing instructors are big fans of prank farts, and how tootsie roll candies may have actually saved lives in the Korean War.
The smell of success
The first product I want to talk about has transformed medical education, military training, and scientific research into basic human emotions. And let’s just get this out of the way: it’s called Liquid Ass.
American former engineer Allen Wittman invented this particular stench while he was still in high school, where he used it to great effect; years later, it became the founding product of Liquid Ass Novelties, the company founded by Wittman and fellow prank-lover Andrew Masters. They expected to be selling it to fellow pranksters – and they certainly are – but they’ve attracted a surprising range of other customers too.
That’s because Liquid Ass – the ingredients of which are a closely-guarded secret – comes closer than any stink before it to simulating with perfect accuracy the smell of… well, what it says on the bottle. And that’s a useful property when your job is training people to be around human excretions.
Nursing instructors and paramedic trainers have been using the product to teach students what it’s like to work with patients who have soiled themselves. Such situations can involve intense embarrassment on the part of the patient, and part of good patient care is learning how to keep a straight face and maintain a professional demeanour regardless of how bad it smells.
The smell is also used in simulated bowel surgery, in both medical and military training. Enter the Cut Suit: a product invented by military simulation company Strategic Operations, and now used by military and civilian medical trainers alike. The Cut Suit is a false torso designed to be worn by an actor, that simulates as closely as possible real human injuries. It bleeds when you cut it, but more than that, it can be used with a range of replaceable organs to simulate anything from a punctured lung to a ruptured bowel. And one of the first clues a medical responder will get to the presence of a ruptured bowel? The smell.
So of course, Strategic Operations uses the best smell in the business: Liquid Ass.
Making a stink over nothing
Liquid Ass – and other, similar products – are also helping scientists learn about one of the most fundamental of human emotions: disgust.
The basic avoidance instinct that keeps us away from poisons and disease vectors, disgust kept our species from dying of all sorts of things long before we understood how most of them work. But modern humans don’t just apply disgust to bad food and funky smells anymore; we’ve carried it over into the realm of social interactions, where it leads to all sorts of strange and concerning effects.
It’s clear the emotions we’re feeling colour our reactions to otherwise innocent stimuli – think of how much more likely you are to snap at someone when you’re already in a bad mood, or to respond to a missed bus with “oh well, there’ll be another one” when you’re already feeling calm and relaxed. By filling a room with the subtle smell of farts, scientists have demonstrated that disgust also colours our reactions.
People who are already feeling disgusted report being less willing to seek treatment for embarrassing medical conditions, make stronger moral judgements about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour, and more specifically – and disturbingly – display stronger prejudice against gay men.
A little stench, it seems, can have a powerful effect. Certainly, as psychologists continue to study the unfortunate side-effects of disgust and, perhaps, how to mitigate them, Wittman and Masters’ little bottles of stink are likely to go on playing an important role in furthering the cause of human understanding.
The Battle of Chosin Reservoir was a particularly nasty campaign of the Korean War: 17 days during which US Marines found themselves surrounded and heavily outnumbered by Chinese troops in the region of the Changjin Reservoir (called “Chosin” by the US troops). This sparsely-populated, mountainous region was being hit by a particularly cruel winter: daytime temperatures around -20°C dropping as low as -37°C at night. The marines later reported over 7,000 soldiers lost to the cold alone.
The temperature was so extreme that troops risked frostbite from their own sweat freezing inside their boots. It became impossible to get liquid drinking water. Guns and other equipment malfunctioned. Batteries in vehicles and other radios were unable to hold their charge. Medical supplies were rendered useless, or had to be warmed in the medics’ mouths before being applied. And starvation was a real threat – not because the troops were out of rations, but because the rations, too, were frozen solid.
On top of everything else, ammunition was running low. The only way to get more supplies was by air drop – a risky move, since Chinese had anti-aircraft units and could have shot supply planes down. Nonetheless, the troops put in a desperate call for supplies and ammunition. Included in their request: 60mm mortar shells, code named “tootsie rolls”.
When the air drop came, the marines were startled to discover that their request had been taken literally. Yes, the supplies that had been parachuted in to them at great risk were boxes and boxes of actual candy.
For those, like me, who’ve never encountered a tootsie roll: they’re a chocolate-flavoured, chewy sweet, a bit like soft toffee. As it turned out, their consistency was perfect for the conditions at Changjin – though they froze like everything else, a few minutes held in one’s hand or mouth warmed them enough to be chewed. The starving marines fell on them with gusto, gaining much needed energy and calories.
Even better, some bright spark realised that the candy’s material properties were just as useful the other way around: a tootsie roll softened in a soldier’s mouth turned into a kind of putty, which could be applied to fill bullet holes and make other repairs on damaged equipment. When the candy froze again, it made a solid seal.
With the help of their unexpected windfall, the US troops were able to push through enemy lines and retreat to safety. The survivors of that brutal campaign were known as the Chosin Few, but among themselves they had another nickname: the Tootsie Roll Marines.