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01.31.2009

The Science of Scent

How exactly it is that we smell (the verb, not the adjective) continues to be somewhat of a mystery, even despite the "advanced" state of modern biochemistry and neurology. The more research we do, the more we continue to be amazed at how sophisticated our equipment is for detecting and appreciating aromas. So sophisticated, in fact, that we've started moving away from chemistry and biology to explain it, and into the realm of quantum mechanics.

One of the world's leading scientists in the field of scent is a guy named Luca Turin. Dr. Turin is a biophysicist that got interested in the biomechanics of aroma perception many years ago, and has become one of the foremost world experts on aromas, in particular when it comes to the multi-billion dollar perfume industry, in whose employ he continues to do research. His most recent book The Secret of Scent: Adventures in Perfume and the Science of Smell has been on my reading list for months, ever since I heard about it.

Turin has a quite controversial theory about the mechanics of how we smell different things. It's fascinating, especially for anyone even with a passing interest in the idea of how it is that we can smell the things we do.

And thankfully, the folks at TED have put a video of him giving a talk about perfume that explains his theory up on the web:

The idea that our noses are all nano-scale spectrometers is pretty cool. But just think about the fact that these smart people are still working out the mechanics of smell, which is only PART of the mechanics of flavor perception.

It's going to be some time before the world figures out how some fermented grape juice can taste like chocolate and mint.

Thanks to Hector for sending me a link to the video!

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