Clarke’s Third Law: Love Potions

Tristan gives Iseult a love potion from

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” ~Arthur C. Clarke, “Profiles of the Future”, 1973

“Witchcraft to the ignorant, …. Simple science to the learned.” ~ Leigh Brackett, “The Sorcerer of Rhiannon”, Astounding February 1942, p. 39

“…a performance that may some day be considered understandable, but that, in these primitive times, so transcends what is said to be the known that it is what I mean by magic.”~ Charles Fort, “Wild Talents”, 1932

While there are many famous scifi authors, few of them reached the heights and fame that Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008) did. Along with Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, Clarke was a titan of science fiction in his own time, and the footsteps he left mark a trail that authors follow even today. Author, inventor, futurist, knight, soldier, he was born shortly after the first World War and died shortly before the Large Hadron Collider came online. Appropriate, then, that one of the colloquialisms he is most famous for has to do with how sufficiently advanced technology can appear.

Over the coming months, I will expand upon a thought that has struck me more and more frequently in recent months, and see where it takes me—that we have finally hit an era where arcane and magical things can happen. I do not, of course, speak of any sort of spiritual activities, but of our technological capabilities reaching the point that things only thought of in fantastic literature are leaping from page to production. While this is not quite, perhaps, what Clarke meant (in that our own civilization is able to divine how these work, with the right background), I feel that it is sufficiently close to how people associate the term to give him honor.

As a starting point, I will reach for something that was very recently in the news, and has only just begun to emerge. I was quite amused when I saw it, as I had already been contemplating this columns, and it solidified my thoughts. With that preface…


The Love Potion

The Magic
Aphrodisiacs, or love potions, have been the subject of tales and trials throughout history. The concept of being able to make someone love for you, or even lust for you, strikes deep at the heart of human need. Failing that, being able to perform better in bed appeals to even those who are already in a relationship that they are happy in-this can be observed in the wild success of Viagra.

Any number of methods to solve impotency, the simpler and more medicinal aspect of the problem, have been used over the years, ranging from various animal parts in traditional medicines, to herbal remedies. As mentioned above however, this is something that has seen some success in recent decades and is far less interesting than the other half of the problem.

Love. Aphrodisiacs, named after the Greek Goddess of Love Aphrodite, purport to increase sexual desire. Inexorably intertwined with this is the ability to make someone sleep with you (literarily conflated with making them want to sleep with you as well). While there are some herbal remedies that increase libido as mentioned above, there has been no success in affecting someone else externally. Until now.


The Science
Recent work published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B[1] found that people like their own body odor, and tend to shop for perfumes and colognes that enhance that scent instead of changing or removing it. This explains why people are so selective about what is ‘their’ perfume.

The study created perfumes with synthetic molecules associated with female students volunteers. The volunteers were asked to shower with a provided soap, apply a different type of perfume to each armpit, then sleep in an untreated cotton T-shirt at night. When asked to evaluate the smell of each armpit on the shirt later, the participants preferred the side treated with the molecule that enhanced their own odor, and disliked the side treated with the molecule associated with another person’s scent.

In the future, we might see custom tailored perfumes designed to enhance your scent. It’s believed that scent plays a large part in sexual selection, and enhancing your scent could help you find a partner by increasing the potency of your own biological scent. A similar study to the T-shirt study mentioned above found that women preferred the smell of men with dissimilar MHCs[2][3], indicative of opposite immunities—something that would lead to a greater survival in offspring. This trend was reversed in women on birth control. They expressed uncertainty when presented with their own scent.

All of this combined paints a somewhat amusing picture. Various fictional love potions often incorporate the hair (or some other biological component) of the target, the brewer, or both. Now we see that basing scents off of biology actually plays into this! Perhaps we may see in the future what happens if you wear a scent that brings out someone else’s natural odor (perhaps acquired from their genetic material).

If you’re already attracted to someone and they increased the potency of their scent, would that perhaps make you be even more attracted to them? I suspect the following research will be fascinating to watch, not to mention absolutely hilarious in its implications, in the products that will result, and (unfortunately) in the scientific misunderstandings that will inevitably leak via pop science into various misinterpreting communities.

The Consequences
That, of course, brings us to contemplation and speculation of what practical results we may see as a result of this. From simply what has been presented, people prefer a scent based off of their own essence as opposed to that of others. If they also prefer their own scent over that of ‘natural’ (in reality, synthetic) scents generally found in deodorants and soaps, boutiques may pop up that take your scent and give you a custom soap/shampoo/perfume/etc. This is unlikely to be something that becomes ‘standard’ for some time, as it does not provide any excessively new functionality, but it does appear to be the sort of thing that filters through certain cultural layers.

The research also indicates that there’s a good body of further knowledge to explore here, such as how different strengths of scent may affect people in different ways, if you can shift people’s scents, etc. On top of all of this, I suspect that legal cases, either legitimate or bogus, may crop up having to do with people ‘manipulating’ others via some form of pheromone-this has already happened with regards to cosmetic surgery[4]. This is highly dependent on what the actual affect is and how much this is seized upon outside of laboratories, but is completely within the bounds of possibility in my opinion. Finally, as a bit of a reach, I would not be surprised to see expensive ‘celebrity’ scents pop up that claim to give the essence of a celebrity, or perhaps a form of ‘natural’ smell in the same veins as homeopathic ‘remedies’.

Clarke’s Third Law covers a wide variety of absolutely fascinating technologies that invoke our cultural memories of magic or mysticism, legend and fiction. I hope you enjoyed this first installment of ‘Clarke’s Third Law’, and that you will return next week to see the next article on Invisibility.

[1] Major histocompatibility complex peptide ligands as olfactory cues in human body odour assessment

[2] New evidence that the MHC influences odor perception in humans: a study with 58 Southern Brazilian students,

[3] MHC-Dependent Mate Preferences in Humans,

[4] Chinese Man Sues Wife Over Being Ugly, Fox 31 Denver,

1 Response

  1. Sean O'Rourke says:

    Very well written. Is this what you accomplished in four years of engineering school?

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