Speaking Scents

“The first thing to do was learn a lot more about everything.”– Chandler Burr The Emperor of Scent

verdant waves of snow

I was familiar with Luca Turin’s theory of smell from a Ted Talks video that I watched some time ago, but I was wholly unaware of the controversy, the pettiness, and most impressive of all- the difficulty and complexity of trying to prove his theory. Author Chandler Burr has probably left out a lot of the most intricate science, but I hardly noticed. I am really glad I took biology and have at least a small understanding of terms like G-protein coupled receptors with which to make a mental map of what the hell he was talking about.

The story is fascinating, and the theory really very interesting as well. In case you are not familiar with it I will attempt a simplified explanation: the question is “how do we smell?” For quite some time scientists have stood by the idea that our noses recognize the shape of certain molecules and that shape determines the smell. But this theory never really made sense, even to those that clung to it, because many molecules that share a similar shape do not smell the same.

Turin argues that what the nose is “reading” is a vibration. It doesn’t matter what the molecule looks like, if it has the same vibrational frequency, it will smell the same. Just as we see and hear within frequencies, we also smell on a frequency level. So that is what the book is about. That discovery as well as the odd little facts and random opinions of the unique man, Turin, are all very engaging.

“Great lunch in the Tudor dining room (curious how all Tudor looks fake, even the real stuff)” (80)

I can not argue with a man that recognizes the hideousness of the Tudor style.  I immediately took to this fantastically scattered while unapologetically focused man.

Turin is a genius on many levels, not least of all his ability to apply the exact word to the exact scent. Although smell is objective, the words we use to describe them are subjective, which muddles our innate understanding of the sense.  Never the less, a rose smells like a rose- and we all agree (although, no two roses smell alike, we have a  limitless [as far as can be known] ability for nuance when it comes to scent, which the perfumers understand and occasionally sublimate to artistic perfection).

Mixed in with the hard science (what do I know, I’ll call it hard) are anecdotal stories of the history of perfumes and their production- the tale of Dioressence involving whale vomit (aka ambergris) being one of my favorites.

The inner workings of the scientific academic community is…not pretty, but that’s life I suppose: stupid and unceasingly small-minded.

I love the degree to which language is wrapped up in our understanding of smell. The methods by which we experience and express our senses grips the imagination. It is only surprising how little is really understood about this essential sense. After all,  it is such a pleasurable and memorable aspect of our lives.

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6 responses to “Speaking Scents

  1. Reminds me of my biology studies.

    In creating a species for my sci-fi and fantasy art, I created conjecture on the varying senses that they use (yes, there are some things that they can do that we can’t). Given the last environment that I had created for them; currently subject to change depending on what NASA Kepler finds over the next few years, I have so far been unable to come up with a differing mechanism for smelling but the work continues.

  2. I used to know a photographer who had no sense of smell at all. He lived on the most bland food and was a complete waste as a dinner guest. Such things are often treated as trivial, but they affect our quality of life a lot. Though they don’t get bothered about people farting which I guess is a plus.

    • In fact, while I was reading this book, I recalled a surprisingly moving radio interview I heard a few years ago about a woman that lost her sense of smell after using one of those nasal zinc cold remedies (which is interesting because as Turin discovered zinc is the metal that conducts the electrons in these little seismometers in our noses…makes one wonder) and after hearing her I was convinced that it would be the worst sense to lose. She described the sterility of smell-less-ness as enough to drive you mad and empty your world.
      I suppose if you’re born with the condition it is different, the other senses will kick things up a few notches…but it sounded really awful.

  3. Every once in a blue moon I get a take of neurosis where I think I can’t smell anything — it freaks me out!

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