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How Does Scratch and Sniff Work?

Scratch and sniff was born of the noble endeavor of making copies. In the dark ages before word processors, inkjet printers, and the Xerox machine, copies of documents were made by placing carbon paper between the sheet you were typing on and the sheet that would become the copy. In the early 1960s, an organic chemist at 3M named Gale Matson developed a way to make ink copies without carbon paper, using a process called microencapsulation.

The Matson process uses two sheets of paper "“ one for the original document and one for the copy "“ on top of one another. The top sheet of paper is coated with microcapsules of colorless ink. When someone writes or types on the paper, the capsules break and release their ink, which mixes with a developer chemical on the second sheet to create a copy.

Not wanting Matson's technology to be a one trick pony, 3M began to search for alternate uses for micro-encapsulation and found that it could be applied to scented oils as well as ink. Scratch 'N Sniff debuted in 1965 and is found in various forms, from stickers to pull-apart perfume sample strips and beyond.

How It Works

1. Scented oil is mixed with a solution of water and water-soluble (capable of being dissolved in water) polymer (3M uses polyoxymethylene urea) in a large vat called a reactor.

2. The mixture is blended at a high speed by a rotary blade. As the oil and polymer solution mix, the oil breaks into very small droplets. After about 12 hours of blending, the droplets are about 20 to 30 microns in size, invisible to the naked eye.

3. When the droplets are the right size, the blending is stopped and a chemical catalyst is added. The catalyst causes the molecular weight of the polymer to increase and become water insoluble. The polymer precipitates out of the water and forms a shell around, or encapsulates, each individual droplet of oil.

4. The reactor is stopped, and the microcapsules are collected and washed to remove any unreacted or unencapsulated materials.

5. The capsules are placed in a tank and mixed with a water base and an adhesive, forming a thick slurry.

6. The slurry is ready to be applied to paper, and there are four basic methods for doing this: silk-screening, web offset printing, flexo-graphic printing (this is what is used for scratch and sniff stickers) and extrusion (a fairly complex printing method used for making perfume and cologne sample strips).

Smelling the finished product is just like smelling anything else. When we scratch the surface of the paper, the microcapsules break and the scented oil travels to our nasal cavity, where the molecules are detected by the olfactory sensory neurons in the olfactory epithelium. A signal is sent to the brain, which translates it, and then we say, "Oooh, banana!"

Click & Sniff

We've come a long way since the birth of Scratch 'N Sniff, and now we don't need micro-encapsulation to smell exotic scents whenever we want. Heck, we don't even need to scratch. Here are some more recent developments in digital scent technology.

DigiScents Inc. in Oakland, California, created the iSmell scent synthesizer. You insert a scent cartridge into the iSmell, which is connected to a computer or video game console, and it releases the scent in short bursts at appropriate times, i.e. when you're playing a first person shooter and get into a firefight, you'll actually get whiffs of gunpowder as you fire rounds. Before you get too excited, PC World named the iSmell one of the 25 Worst Tech Products of All-Time.
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ScenTeck Technologies' Scratch-N-Sniff Pro software and System Scent Card replace the standard vibrating sound waves coming from computer speakers with unique vibrating tones that the brain recognizes not as a sound, but a scent.
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Unleashed, an album by Savannah, Georgia-based musician Zan, is the world's first scent-enabled CD. A gadget called a Scent-Dome plugged into your computer reads code embedded in the CD and releases different scents as the songs play.

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Big Questions
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
Astrid Riecken, Getty Images

This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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