See Inside October 2011

The Scent of Your Thoughts

Although we are usually unaware of it, we communicate through chemical signals just as much as birds and bees do

Illustration by Noma Bar

The moment that started martha mcclintock’s scientific career was a whim of youth. Even, she recalls, a ridiculous moment. It is summer, 1968, and she is a Wellesley College student attending a workshop at the Jackson Laboratory in Maine. A lunch-table gathering of established researchers is talking about how mice appear to synchronize their ovary cycles. And 20-year-old McClintock, sitting nearby, pipes up with something like, “Well, don’t you know? Women do that, too.”

“I don’t remember the exact words,” she says now, sitting relaxed and half-amused in her well-equipped laboratory at the University of Chicago. “But everyone turned and stared.” It is easy to imagine her in that distant encounter—the same direct gaze, the same friendly face and flyaway hair. Still, the lunch-table group is not charmed; it informs her that she does not know what she is talking about.

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