Saturday, October 30, 2010

World Series “High” Lights



When my somewhat tightly wrapped acquaintance Brian B. announced he was going to visit San Francisco, and reeled off the list of tourist sites he intended to visit, I encouraged him to spend a few hours just hanging out in Golden Gate Park. It would, I thought, help him unwind from his usual state of Red Bull- and nicotine-induced tenseness.

So off he went. He had a great time but there was one small fly in the ointment. While relaxing in Golden Gate Park, he was issued a summons for smoking . . . a cigarette.

This is the same park where, a hundred yards from the Children’s Playground, assorted vagrants and slackers lounge about openly smoking reefer on a slope called Hippie Hill. The odds of them being issued a summons: small to nil.

Ah, the contradictions of life in America’s most “progressive” city.

Last week during Game 1 of the World Series against the Giants, Texas Rangers center fielder Josh Hamilton caught the smell of pot drifting out of the bleachers in San Francisco’s AT&T Park. In town the day before, he and his wife had seen people smoking it within sniffing distance of police officers. Touchingly, he found this remarkable.

Hamilton’s naivety was nothing compared to the spontaneous amazement of Dallas TV sports anchor Newy Scruggs, who got a nose full during a live standup before the game. In a later segment Scruggs pinpoints the smoke source—and seems genuinely puzzled that the police aren’t doing anything about it. Meanwhile, the crowd in the ball park is dotted with fans wearing “Let Timmy Smoke” T-shirts, and ones declaring “Yes, We Cannabis.”

Spark up a doobie and everyone’s cool with it. Bring your Zippo near a Marlboro and the suede/denim secret police will tackle you like the fascist bastard you are.

Ah, San Francisco.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Annals of Anosmia 5: Paradise Lost, Book Contract Gained


There was a time earlier in the decade when features editors couldn’t commission enough “how I lost my sense of smell” pieces. From 2003 to 2008, eight such essays appeared in major publications around the world. (This doesn’t count another four written by congenital anosmics—people who never had a sense of smell in the first place.)

Analysis of the “first person anosmic” genre reveals two key narrative elements: a recitation of doctors consulted, and a reference to the 2004 Nobel Prize in medicine.

The Australian newspaper The Age just published another example of the art form, an essay by Peter Lowndes called “Losing my senses.” Lowndes was an enthusiastic epicure before contracting a heavy cold six years ago at the age of thirty-five. Afterwards he was left unable to smell and barely able to taste his food. Lowndes makes the expected bow to the rules of the genre:
In search of a remedy during those initial years I saw several allergists and an ear, nose and throat specialist, and dabbled with acupuncture, nasal sprays, changing my diet and several other suggested remedies. None of that helped.
He name checks “Dr. William Smith, a senior consultant at the clinical immunology and allergy department at Royal Adelaide Hospital,” but for some unfathomable reason fails to reference the 2004 Nobel Prize. Despite failing to score the maximum number of genre points, his description of tantalizing near-recoveries and ultimate surrender to a one-dimensional olfactory life is well written.

Today’s San Francisco Chronicle carries a story by Carolyn Jung about an anosmic local chef: “Carlo Middione can’t taste but still loves to cook.” Middione, now in his mid-seventies, was for many years the owner of Vivande Porta Via on Fillmore Street. Three years ago he lost his sense of smell in a car accident and eventually gave up his restaurant in frustration. (A pity—he’s clearly talented.)

Middione experienced disturbing episodes of parosmia in which formerly pleasurable smells became obnoxious. While he still enjoys the physical process of cooking and preparing food, he seems resigned to his shrunken sensory world. 

According to Jung, Middione is not the only chef to lose it:
Middione has some company in the professional chef world. Most notably, chef Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago lost his sense of taste after undergoing chemotherapy for tongue cancer. And Kirk Webber, chef-owner of Cafe Kati in San Francisco, lost his sense of taste after suffering two concussions in a mugging in 2003.

These chefs eventually regained their ability to taste, although they are considerably younger than Middione, who’s in his mid-70s.
Jung also reports that food industry executive Barb Stuckey is writing a book about smell loss that features Middione. Ms. Stuckey enters a crowded marketplace. Bonnie Blodgett’s memoir of smell loss and recovery was published a few months ago. And next year cooking school student, accident victim, and NYT anosmia essayist Molly Birnbaum will publish a book recounting her recovery from anosmia. Looks like smell loss may soon get a shelf of its own in the self-help section.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

All Psychology is Political: A Fisking of Peter Liberman and David Pizarro

Saturday’s piece by Peter Liberman and David Pizarro is everything readers expect from the op-ed page of the New York Times on the eve of an election that threatens scores of liberal Democratic incumbents. It implies that the New York Republican candidate for governor is using a devious campaign tactic with “hidden effects” that “can elicit a surprisingly intense reaction” from voters. The tactic plays to the deepest instinctual urges of certain voters and is associated with harsh moral judgments, racism, xenophobia, and homophobia. Nothing we haven’t heard a million times from Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich, and the fabulously incoherent editorial writers of the Times.

But Liberman and Pizarro’s conclusion breaks new ground:
election officials should keep the psychology of disgust in mind — and be wary of Purell dispensers or awful odors mysteriously appearing at polling places this Nov. 2.
Hunh? You read it right: the alarming tactic in question is an odorized mailer sent out by the Paladino campaign. And the hodge-podge of inference and innuendo in “All Politics is Olfactory” is presented by two professors who base their case, such as it is, on psychological research.

How do Liberman, a professor of political science at Queens College and CUNY Graduate Center, and Pizarro, an assistant professor of psychology at Cornell, arrive at this lurid warning?

Disgust, they say, is an emotion produced by natural selection that protects humans from contamination by harmful pathogens associated with feces, pus and related substances. They cite a psychology study showing that sitting in a malodorous or dirty room makes people judge hypothetical immoral actions (e.g., lying on a resume) more harshly. Thus dirtiness leads to sterner moral evaluations.

On the other hand, so does cleanliness—or even a mere symbol of cleanliness. (What a conveniently nonfalsifiable theory!) According to Liberman and Pizarro, “merely standing near a hand-sanitizing dispenser led people to report more conservative political beliefs.” You’ll have to take their word for this result because the study is not published. Here they’ve gone beyond science by press release all the way to science by op-ed.

Moving right along, Liberman and Pizarro note that filling out a questionnaire in the presence of a foul odor leads to more negative attitudes toward gay men. Geez—a stinky odor would probably lead to more negative attitudes toward Santa Claus. Did this study rate anyone besides gay men? Were the results cherry-picked for this op-ed? Ooops—can’t say! It’s another unpublished study.

Next, Liberman and Pizarro extract a single result from a six-experiment study of Canadian college students and use it to link people who are easily disgusted with xenophobia and racism.

But that was just a warm-up. Finally, our authors get down to the nitty-gritty:
Recent data collected by one of us (Dr. Pizarro) has also shown that political conservatives on average report being more easily disgusted than liberals.
“Recent data” is academic code meaning “these are unpublished results”.  

And what do these recent data show?
Even when controlling for income, depth of religious belief and a host of other factors, conservatives tended to score higher in disgust sensitivity than liberals.
“Tended” is a code word for results that are in the right direction but not statistically significant. In other words, Dr. Pizarro’s key point—that conservatives are more easily disgusted than liberals—should be taken with a large grain of salt.

So where does all this hot-from-the-lab and yet-to-be-published research lead?
Taken together, researchers’ findings suggest that the foul smell of Mr. Paladino’s mailer may have done more than just lend it novelty. It also probably made voters more judgmental of New York’s “career politicians” and more receptive to the mailer’s message that the next governor needed to “cut taxes” and “ferret out corruption.” And these impressions may have endured long after the odor and feelings of disgust had dissipated.
Or, to put it another way, Paladino’s mailer was an effective form of political speech and that’s why Liberman and Pizarro are mounting an op-ed campaign of innuendo against it.
Obviously, the malodorous mailer alone can’t explain how Carl Paladino steamrolled Rick Lazio in the primary, 62 percent to 38 percent. Nonetheless, election officials should keep the psychology of disgust in mind — and be wary of Purell dispensers or awful odors mysteriously appearing at polling places this Nov. 2.
Paladino’s campaign gimmick is a scented nightmare for today’s progressives: it’s the Manchurian air freshener. Plant a subliminal olfactory notion in the irrational mind of a Republican, then activate it with a smell in the voting booth. 

What exactly are they insinuating in their caution to election officials? That Paladino should not be allowed to use smells as part of attempts to persuade voters? That disgusting smells and Purell dispensers ought to be banned because they favor one party over another? Will poll watchers have to remove anyone who coughs or blows his nose? Anyone who looks unkempt or too recently bathed?

Studies purporting to define the cognitive traits of conservatives are all the rage in psychology journals these days. Painting conservatives as easily disgusted, judgmental, racist, xenophobic, homophobic and vulnerable to subliminal emotional manipulation is par for the course. It’s as if academic psychology were set on pathologizing conservative attitudes and behavior.

Remarkably, it’s also a theme we hear frequently from Democratic politicians. Last month Senator John Kerry was talking about attention deficits: 
“We have an electorate that doesn’t always pay that much attention to what’s going on, so people are influenced by a simple slogan rather than the facts or the truth.’’
(There’s a ton of research on that . . . )

And we hear about it a lot from our Therapist in Chief:
At a Democratic fundraiser in Newton this month, offering what he called “a little bit of perspective from the Oval Office,’’ President Obama gave this diagnosis of the American political scene:

“Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now, and facts and science and argument does not seem to be winning the day all the time, is because we’re hard-wired not to always think clearly when we’re scared. And the country is scared.’’
Fear, like disgust, is a survival mechanism that can be exploited by the party of the knuckle-draggers. And don’t forget bitterness—it can lead to xenophobia:
It was at a San Francisco fundraiser in 2008 that Obama described hard-pressed citizens in the small towns of Pennsylvania as “bitter’’ people who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them . . . as a way to explain their frustrations.’’

What Liberman and Pizarro have done in the New York Times is provide high-toned academic cover for the condescending attitudes of liberals and progressives. Putting psychological science to such blatantly partisan purposes is, dare I say it, rather disgusting.

UPDATE November 7, 2010

David Pizarro tells me that his paper on conservatives being more easily disgusted than liberals was, in fact, published. I regret the error. The paper can be found here. You decide whether or not it should be taken with a grain of salt.

I took the opportunity to ask Dr. Pizarro three questions. Should he care to reply, I’ll post his answers here.

Your 2008 paper in Cognition & Emotion reporting that conservatives are more easily disgusted than liberals did not involve smells. Has anyone directly shown that conservatives are more disgusted by smells than are liberals, or is the link purely a conjecture at this point?

What specific measures do you and Dr. Liberman believe ought to be taken regarding the use of scented speech during elections?

Do you or Dr. Liberman have any evidence that Carl Paladino’s campaign used, or intended to use, odors in polling places during either the primary or general election?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Quick Sniffs: Oudh, Odd & Ozoned

Uh oh. Oudh’s disappearing.

§ § §

A high school junior? Yikes! First there was CK’s “junkie chic”, then this, then this. Is the fashion business just sick in the head or what? (I know, I know, it’s provocative, daringly transgressive, yadda yadda.)

§ § §

“I’m certainly aware that there are a lot of people who don’t like the smell of marijuana and I’m sorry for the folks that have to put up with a smell that they don’t like. However, calling the cops to try and prosecute a bad smell is a poor use of law enforcement resources,” Webb said.
That is former Cannabis Information Resource Director Martin Webb. He’s in for a rude awakening if California’s Prop. 19 passes next Tuesday. The legal assault by the anti-freedom smell-o-phobes and Nasal NIMBYs will be fast and furious.

On the bright side, it should make for a fun round of “When Worlds Collide.” Join the party in the northwest belfry and don’t forget the Jiffy Pop.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Nasal NIMBY Graham Webb-Lee Plays the Islam Card


It’s come to this. A guy in the Stockport suburb of Manchester, England, lives for years next door to a take-out sandwich shop. New owners take over the business three years ago and replace the exhaust fan over their grill. Now the neighbor decides he doesn’t like the smell. He complains to the town’s environmental services department which makes repeated visits and finds no violation. 

But Mr. Graham Webb-Lee is not to be deterred. He complains to the town council that the new owners failed to get a planning permit when they replaced the exhaust fan. The council tells the shop owners that since an objection has been raised they must apply for a retroactive planning permit. The item is placed on the agenda for the October 14 meeting:
A retrospective Planning application (DC044716) for the retention of extraction vent to front of shop at 159 Adswood Road, Cale Green - recommendation grant.
Uh-oh! It looks like the council is set to approve the shop’s retroactive permit. So what does Webb-Lee do? He shows up at the meeting with a litany of complaints: the shop’s odor makes his clothes smell bad, his daughter has an eating disorder [?!], and 
“The vent is 12 inches from my front door. Every morning the smell of bacon comes through and makes me physically sick.”
Perhaps feeling that he isn’t making sufficient headway with the council members, he decides to play his ace:
“I have a lot of Muslim friends. They refuse to visit me anymore because they can’t stand the smell of bacon.”
That’s all the politically correct members of the Central Stockport Area Council Committee need to hear. Offend Muslim olfactory sensibilities? No way. They vote to force the cafe owner to remove the exhaust fan.

The owner is outraged—and baffled. She and her husband are Turkish; her husband is Muslim. The presence of cooking bacon doesn’t seem to be a problem for their Muslim friends who visit the shop all the time and even eat there.

This is a truly remarkable case of Nasal NIMBYism: it takes self-centered whining about food smells to a whole new level. Graham Webb-Lee actually plays the Islamic intolerance card against a pair of tolerant Muslims and wins. Beverley Akciecek and her husband Cetin support their seven kids by working in a sandwich shop 50 hours a week. They do so in part by cooking bacon for bacon-eaters. Now their livelihood is threatened by a smell-o-phobic douchebag and his cringing enablers on the town council.

Take a few minutes and browse the Stockport town website. It’s like Berkeley on the moors. Be sure to check out the 2009 annual Diversity and Equality Report. You’ll find that 40% of Council employees “have attended bespoke Diversity Awareness or Managing Inclusion training,” and that the town celebrates diversity, holds anti-bullying conferences, and observes Black History Month, Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month, and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Month.

That leaves a lot of space on the official Stockport calendar. How about designating Support for Immigrant Entrepreneurs Month? Or Defending Western Liberal Traditions Against Creeping Dhimmitude Month?

That might be too much to ask from this crowd.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Live from Brooklyn this Saturday Night



The Public School New York is “a school with no curriculum,” a “self-organizing educational program for which the curriculum is proposed by the general public.” In other words,
it is a framework that supports autodidactic activities, operating under the assumption that everything is in everything.
OK then!

Starting from these freewheeling propositions, and having successfully navigated a self-organizing process that looks like this


some folks have put together a class called “The Space Life of Smell” and invited me to lead a session.

So this Saturday, October 23rd, I’ll be discussing “Smellscapes: Real & Imagined” at 177 Livingston Street, Brooklyn, New York. It begins at 7:00 pm. It’s free and open to anyone who’s interested. To attend you can RSVP here (scroll down).

See you there.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

It’s a Jersey Thing


“On a cold October night, a small town in Colorado stood up to New Jersey and finally said “Go away!”. Our fortitude was the inspiration for others, and now New Jersey is slowly receding back to the desolate land from which it came.”

It’s funnier when you don’t have to live it on a daily basis.


Friday, October 15, 2010

Quick Sniffs

Speaking of Nasal NIMBYs, isn’t there a legal phrase in Latin that means “law firm of insufferable, overbearing douchebags”?

Someone’s taken the trouble of rating the “Top 5 Gassiest Dog Breeds.” No surprises—bulldogs and boxers both make the list—but I wish there was some data behind the rankings. [Via Tracey Beckerman.]

Is it the economy? Retail perfume theft is back in the news. Plus another big heist in Florida.

Do you have £35 burning a hole in your pocket? Then you can buy a scratch-and-sniff poster that “smells like the moon.” Hey, Buzz Aldrin, pull my finger!

And this exhibit of scented artwork sounds like fun.

Added October 16, 2010:

A new biography of Coco Chanel explores the business side of her success in fashion and fragrance.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Nasal NYMBY of the Month


Rosalind Rodburg is having trouble selling her $1.8 million apartment on West End Avenue because there’s a truffle shop twenty-one floors below.

Boo hoo hoo.

P.S. Hey, it’s tough times for the fungus, too.

P.P.S. Just find a sucker buyer with a specific anosmia to androstenone. Duh.

P.P.P.S. New York Times real estate columnist Christine Haughney compares truffle smell to “rotting carrots and lettuce.” Hunh? Oh, wait. She graduated from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. Never mind.

ISDP: When the Magic Mushroom Farm Smells Like Dead People


It’s the thirteenth of the month again—a long two-and-half weeks until Halloween, but time to lift the lid on the month’s worth of stories that have accumulated in our “Favorites” folder since the last installment of FirstNerve’s most repellant feature.

In Geneva, Wisconsin, business owners complained to police about “a foul odor” coming from a neighboring building. You know what that means—and so do the cops. They entered the building on Kruger Road with the expectation that “the rancid odor was a rotting dead body.” (Read ISDP much, officers?) Instead, what they discovered was “an elaborate growing operation” for hallucinogenic mushrooms.

Psych! 

In the annals of ISDP it is often an alert citizen who notices an unusually disagreeable odor and reports it to police, who find the deceased. This was the case last month in Edwards, Mississippi. But the citizen in question deserves a special shout-out.
Clinton Police Chief Don Byington said the body was found after a farmer off Highway 22, near Edwards, noticed an odor when he went to tend his hogs at about 6:45 p.m. on Friday.
The guy works on a pig farm but can still pick up the scent of human decay? We say bravo.

The deceased was an 81-year-old woman; an autopsy determined that the cause of death was blunt-force trauma to the head and neck. A 39-year-old man has been charged in her murder as well as that of his 68-year-old aunt in Alabama.

Tenants of an apartment building in Brookline, Massachusetts, began complaining to the landlord about an “odor on the fifth floor.” When building management was unable to contact the owner of the smelly unit, where a week’s worth of mail was piled up, they forced their way in along with police. The body of the 28-year-old female resident was found inside. Foul play was not suspected.

Down near the Indian River Lagoon in Melbourne, Florida, residents had been smelling “a foul odor.” They called police, who searched the area but found nothing. A few days later a local fellow found the body of an unidentified adult male among the mangroves on the lakeshore.

Finally, we close as we opened: with an incident that strictly speaking does not qualify as an ISDP event. Call it a pre-odorized demise. It happened in Florida on October 1.
A 48-year-old Orlando man apparently committed suicide Friday morning using a poisonous gas inside his car while parked at an Interstate 95 rest stop in Fort Pierce.

Just before 6 AM, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper found a car reported as suspicious because of a sign warning “Do not approach — hydrogen sulfide.” A foul odor was in the air around the car. The rest stop was closed while an investigation got under way.
The deceased appears to have used common household chemicals to produce a fatal concentration of the rotten-egg-scented vapors, a method recently popularized in Japan. 

Endanger innocent people and emergency workers on your way out? Nice work, pal.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Great Pheromone Debate


By far the most contentious topic in the chemical senses is whether or not humans produce and respond to pheromones—sex pheromones in particular. That this is still a matter for debate, fifty years after the coining of the term “pheromone”, will surprise some people. Others, like myself, are simply frustrated that despite thousands of experiments and scientific publications, the issue is not yet settled.

My sense of the field is that things are changing and a resolution may be at hand. It’s something I hope to explore on FirstNerve in the coming weeks. 

To start things off, I’ve linked to this excellent mini-lecture by Dr. Tristram Wyatt, a specialist in pheromones and chemical communication in the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology. His topic is “Success of the smelliest: Pheromones and evolution.” In twelve minutes, Wyatt puts the notion of human sexual pheromones into a clear and concise historical context. Have a look.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Answers from the New Emperor of Scent


We've heard back from Thomas Prevenslik. Here is what he had to say.

FN: When and why did you start thinking about quantum electrodynamics (QED) and olfactory receptors?

TP: Luca Turin contacted me about 4 months ago with some questions about QED radiation.

FN: Have you ever smelled deuterated benzaldehydes? Were they what you expected?

TP: No, I know very little about smell.

FN: How many languages do you speak or read?

TP: English, but some Chinese.

FN: Would you agree that Or Black by Pascal Morabito is “an extreme fougère, smoky, dark, bitter, resinous-green, like triple-distilled Earl Grey, a step beyond even Rive Gauche pour Homme in its saturnine glory”?

TP: Have no idea.

FN: How convincing did you find the 2007 Brookes et al., paper on olfactory receptor activation by inelastic electron tunneling? Did it motivate your new thinking on QED and smell?

TP: Marshal Stoneham sent me the paper a few weeks ago. Like all tunneling phenomenon, I thought it was difficult to understand and concluded with handwaving. But this has been going on since Marcus. Very few people understand the Marcus theory, but it is accepted. The basic problem here is that a source of EM energy is not available to produce the shape or vibration signal from the odorant molecule - so since Marcus, tunneling is thought to explain electron transfer. Perhaps, QED theory will change that.

In fact, some one other than Turin knowing that I have proposed that nanoparticles (NPs) emit ioionizing radiation in cancer suggested that perhaps odor molecules are also emitting EM radiation. A NP is like and odorant molecule in that both are similar to NPs, a necessary condition in the QED theory.

In tribochemistry, QED theory argues electrons and photons are produced by rubbing NPs off the surfaces. The residual kT energy that the atoms had while a part of a macroscopic body is not allowed by QM, so QM requires the NPs to get rid of the kT energy by EM emission.

With regard to smell, my results to date suggest that IR and VCD emission is likely emitted from the odorant molecules, again after acquiring the kT energy in colliding with the nose surface. But ionizing radiation is not likely produced as in tribochemistry. Nevertheless, if the G-receptors can detect the IR and VCD emission to produce a signal to the brain,then the QED mechanism will certainly challenge both shape and vibration theories.

Some experimental test to demonstrate that non-ionizing IR and VCR radiaton cause the odors we smell would prove the QED theory. If you know of any experimental groups that can produce odor from IR/VCD radiation, let me know. I am a retired American now in China and living in Hong Kong, China, and Berlin.

FN: Who would you rather have formulate your personal cologne: Annick Ménardo, Bertrand Duchaufour, Yohji Yamamoto, or Jean-Claude Ellena?

TP: I use my own personal smell.

FN: Have you found it difficult to publish your new vibrational theory of olfaction in peer-reviewed scientific journals? Do you think there is an effort to silence vibration theorists?

TP: I have not tried to publish, yet. But would expect opposition from both shape and vibration theorists as well. There is always an attempt to silence new scientific theories. If you look at my home page, you will see that I have challenged almost every theory in physics with the QED theory, e.g., the QED theory shows the Hubble redshift is caused by cosmic NP dust, and therefore the Universe is not expanding. So, you see I have a enemies in astronomy as well.

FN: Is 1981 Château Lamothe Despujols really all it’s cracked up to be? What’s your favorite Sauternes?

TP: Have no idea.

FN: Has a tall, socially awkward guy been following you around taking notes? If not, why not?

TP: Have no idea.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Questions for the New Emperor of Scent

Yesterday we broke the story of a new vibrational theory of olfaction that threatens to eclipse Luca Turin’s. If there’s going to be a new Emperor of Scent, people will want to know more about him. To satisfy everyone’s curiosity we invited Thomas Prevenslik to take part in an FN Interview. Here is the list of questions we sent him.

FN: When and why did you start thinking about quantum electrodynamics (QED) and olfactory receptors?

FN: Have you ever smelled deuterated benzaldehydes? Were they what you expected?

FN: How many languages do you speak or read?

FN: Would you agree that Or Black by Pascal Morabito is “an extreme fougère, smoky, dark, bitter, resinous-green, like triple-distilled Earl Grey, a step beyond even Rive Gauche pour Homme in its saturnine glory”?

FN: How convincing did you find the 2007 paper by Brookes et al. on olfactory receptor activation by inelastic electron tunneling? Did it motivate your new thinking on QED and smell?

FN: Who would you rather have formulate your personal cologne: Annick Ménardo, Bertrand Duchaufour, Yohji Yamamoto, or Jean-Claude Ellena?

FN: Have you found it difficult to publish your new vibrational theory of olfaction in peer-reviewed scientific journals? Do you think there is an effort to silence vibration theorists?

FN: Is the 1981 Château Lamothe Despujols really all it’s cracked up to be? What’s your favorite Sauternes?

FN: Has a tall, socially awkward guy been following you around taking notes? If not, why not?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Breaking News: New Vibration Theory Supercedes Luca Turin’s Account of Smell


[“The Eight Primal Vibrations of the Biscuitist Reality Structure.” Via Unurthed.com]

In a stunning development over the weekend, an unheralded researcher from Youngwood, Pennsylvania unveiled a new theory of how molecular vibrations activate olfactory receptors. Newcomer Thomas Prevenslik’s groundbreaking work could topple Luca Turin from his dominant position in the world’s vibrationist community. According to Prevenslik, his theory supercedes Turin's because odorant molecules create “their own unique QED induced IR and VCD rotational spectra from the absorption of thermal kT energy upon collision inside the nose.”

Awesome.

News of Prevenslik’s radical new insights were published here and here on prlog.org, an online “free press release distribution service.”

What’s that? No, they weren’t published in a “real” scientific journal. Don’t be a hater. Why should a true genius be forced to like, do experiments and stuff, and submit them to picky editors, and reply to some bummer of an anonymous review? Not to mention the tedious copy editing process. Why hold Mr. Prevenslik to a different standard than Luca Turin and Marshall Stoneham? What he has done is take “science by press release” to a whole new level.

Hunh? No, Mr. Prevenslik is not a head case. He has published scientific papers on balloons and telescope mirrors. Yes, back in the Sixties; so what? He also has a U.S. Patent application (20030178616). No, he hasn’t been granted a patent yet. So he sued the U.S. Patent Office and lost. Big deal.

Can you speak up, please? Yes, I am certain that this new theory is original to Mr. Prevenslik. No, now that you mention it, I have never seen Thomas Prevenslik and Marshall Stoneham in the same room at the same time. Separated at birth? That’s ridiculous. Just look at them.

Besides, they have totally different personalities. Mr. Prevenslik likes to send out press releases about a kooky smell theory while Prof. Stoneham likes to send threatening emails to bloggers who make fun of the same theory.

Good Twin, Evil Twin? I have no idea you’re talking about.

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.