Sunday, October 3, 2010

Ten Thousand Odors in Rhyming Verse

In my second post here at FirstNerve, I riffed on the popular but scientifically baseless idea that humans can smell 10,000 different odors. In What the Nose Knows, I traced the idea back to 1927 when two American chemists created a numerical system of odor classification that, in theory, could distinguish 6,561 separate smells. This precise estimate was soon rounded up to 10,000.

As I pointed out in the book, this estimate is highly sensitive to arbitrary assumptions in the classification system. Change them slightly and you end up with 161,051 odors or 147,741 odors, etc. In addition to this weakness, the sniff-ratings used in the system turned out to be unreliable.

My research on the topic convinced me that the American chemists Ernest C. Crocker and Lloyd F. Henderson were the scientific source for “10,000 smells”: the trail ended with them. But the seductiveness of that nice, fat round number worried me: their estimate might have re-awakened some early, even pre-scientific, myth about odor number. Was there an earlier instance of 10,000 smells? Not that I could find.

But that was two years ago. Since then Google has digitized an even vaster array of old books and periodicals. Lo and behold, I’ve now found two references in poetic verse that date back more than 200 years.

The first, published in 1804, is from The Power of Solitude—A Poem in Two Parts, by Joseph Story. 
Without her presence where shall bliss reside?
E’en fair CALYPSO loathed her deathless pride:
On wings divine aërial spirits shot
Ten thousand odors thro her sparkling grot,
Round her rich couch with warbling echoes played,
And arched the mytle’s salutary shade,
With fragrant breath the cooling zephyrs wove ; 
But all was sadness in thine absence, love!
Immortal life had just the power to please,
And health and beauty languished for disease.
Okay, so this is a poetic, not a scientific, antecedent. Still, midst all these cooling zephyrs and warbling echoes, it’s a little unnerving to stumble upon the exactitude of ten thousand odors. What’s going on?

The second example, published in 1806, is from The Pleasures of Love: Being Amatory Poems, Original and Translated, from Asiatic and European Languages, by G.W. Fitzwilliam. The poem To Selima was originally by Achmed Ardebeili. It begins:
Ten thousand tulips bloom in Mavra’s vale,
Ten thousand gems in Corga’s rocks are born,
Ten thousand odors scent the vernal gale,
Ten thousand splendors crown the orient morn.
After invoking few more 10Ks it ends with:
Ten thousand armies cannot vanquish Fate.

Here’s a solution to the puzzle. In the first decade of the 19th century, before the Industrial Revolution, ten thousand of anything was a lot. There were no gigabytes of data then, no estimate of the speed of light, no concept of the real age of dinosaur fossils. Ten thousand was a number tossed around by poets as a rhetorical device. With inflation, poets have reached for bigger effect. As the poet who is buried at Père Lachaise once sang:

The crystal ship is being filled,
A thousand girls,
A thousand thrills,
A million ways to spend your time,
When we get back,
I’ll drop a line.

2 comments: said...

This may be a little over my head. I definitely don't think I have ever recognized 10,000 different smells regardless of what atmosphere I have been in. Interesting article and very different from most of the fragrance blogs out there. Thanks for the info.

~x~ said...

aren't there reference to scent in song of solomon?

i think that's pretty serious evidence which could be thrown into the mix.

i'm glad my input helps with your research. you're welcome.