Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Tomorrow’s Perfume Reviews Today: Chandler Burr on BK’s Flame

A friend who’s fallen on hard times found this crumpled document while dumpster-diving near the New York Times building. It appears to be a discarded draft of Chandler Burr’s upcoming review of Flame, the new Burger King fragrance. We present it here as a public service.

When Coco Chanel asked Edmond Roudnitska to capture the essence of masculinity for her new men’s cologne, he knew he would have to transcend the contemporary clichés of French perfumery. Chanel would not be satisfied with the Gallic banalities of acrid armpit, garlic breath, and the portable toilet on Pier 6 of the Marseille docks. Roudnitska needed to create something revolutionary and by loading the formula with dimethoxypenisone—the olfactory equivalent of taut foreskin—he succeeded. Viande d’Homme redefined how a man should smell in the 1960s. With its sharp top note of fresh beard clippings and warm drydown—the comforting muskiness of Tuesday’s briefs on a Thursday evening—Viande d’Homme established a new family of fragrance.

Viande types such as Tronc d’Abre by Hugo Boss, and Thierry Mugler’s Testicule were wildly popular in Europe but less so here. Mass market abominations—Fabergé’s Wanker and Spume by Quintessence—left American consumers with a bad taste. Then, in 1992, perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena gave the viande type a new introverted minimalism and rectangularity. His Après le Boeuf for Hermes has a tender, yet joyful meatiness, the olfactory equivalent of Caravaggio’s Armor Vincet Omnia.

Now Burger King has launched Flame, its own take on the viande theme. The fragrance was creative-directed by José Montoya, whose previous work (Chalupa Hombre for Taco Belle and Acqua di Scampi for Sean Jean Silver) set a bold new direction for culinary cologne. The perfumer behind Flame is Olivier Boisdur, a talented newcomer with a gift for enlivening traditional accords with exotic elements.

Flame’s topnote unfolds like a prepubescent Asian contortionist climbing out of a crate of overripe Algerian pears. The bold viande accord in the heart introduces itself with solid, yet suave confidence—it’s Richard Gere on steroids. Boisdur delivers a signature touch with a trace of instantly recognizable isopropylparabenzyldicaproic acetate. The effect is stunning: like spare ribs slow-cooking on a Weber E-210 at a Section C tailgate party in the Meadowlands. The drydown is long and satisfying.

Flame combines the virile patience of an Argentine gaucho with the American genius for cuisine rapide. It’s a magical blend—enigmatic yet approachable, radiant yet abstract. A Mark Rothko done medium rare. Awesome.

(Four stars, delicious.)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Speed Smells

In many states, the legal doctrine of “in plain smell” allows a police officer who smells pot smoke during a traffic stop to search the vehicle for marijuana. Pot smoke is strong and distinctive—it doesn’t take much training to recognize and it can be detected at quite a distance. But, as I describe in What the Nose Knows, identifying the faint, vaguely vegetative scent of a fresh marijuana plant is a different matter. Scientists have recreated the conditions of actual criminal arrests, and find that it’s unlikely police could, as claimed, pick up the scent of pot plants in a distant grow house, or of bricks of marijuana wrapped in plastic and hidden in the trunk of a car.

Smell can be an early clue in drug busts of another kind. Yesterday, for example, neighbors in Hartselle, Alabama, called the sheriff’s department to complain of a bad smell coming from a nearby home. According to News Channel 19 in Huntsville, officers discovered a methamphetamine lab in the house. They arrested the three occupants (pictured above) and charged them with unlawful manufacturing of methamphetamine.

There was a bumper crop of stinky meth lab stories in the media this summer. In July, in suburban Houston, neighbors reported a foul odor.  Firefighters tracked it to the detached garage of a nearby house where they found a big meth lab.

Around the same time, a lady living on Pine Island, near Ft. Myers, Florida, thought she had been smelling burning garbage for the past week. Then sheriff’s deputies busted a couple living two doors down from her for having a meth-making operation in their living room.

Also in July, a lady in Mitchell, Illinois—across the river from St. Louis, Missouri—found a smell from down the block so offensive that she couldn’t stand to stay outdoors and barbecue. A month later U.S. Marshals and the Illinois State Police raided three adjacent houses in the neighborhood and found meth labs in each.

And then there were the folks in Casa Grande, Arizon, just south of Phoenix, who told a reporter how bad-smelling houses with blacked out windows were making people in the neighborhood very nervous.

Cooking meth in a makeshift lab generates lots of intense, unpleasant odor. I’ve been told, by a person whose family lived downwind from a rural meth house, that it resembles burning insulation or plastic. Other people describe it as smelling like ammonia, which can lead to some unexpected results. Again in July, police got a call from residents of an apartment complex in Charlotte, North Carolina complaining of a bad smell from an empty apartment. A haz mat crew arrived expecting to dismantle a meth lab—instead they found boxes of kitty litter soaked with cat urine and feces.

Oh well.  Better safe than sorry.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Annals of Anosmia

In yesterday’s New York Times, Molly Birnbaum reflects on life without a sense of smell. She became anosmic following a head injury—she was hit by car while jogging. At the time she was training to become a chef. But after finding that without smell “taste is a mere whisper,” she gave up that career for a less nasal-intensive job in publishing. Over the next couple of years she gradually regained some limited smell function: first the aroma of sliced cucumber, later the smell of garlic. Now she can pick up the scent of a bagel shop a block away.

Birnbaum is fortunate: even such mildly happy endings are rare for people who suddenly lose their ability to smell. I know this because I’m a smell scientist and I read the medical journals. But you probably know it too—because not a year goes by without someone, somewhere, publishing a first-person essay on smell loss. Welcome to the annals of anosmia: the formerly obscure malady that has taken the feature pages by storm.

Why are essays about this particular medical misfortune so popular? One explanation is that we take smell for granted and therefore its sudden loss brings home in dramatic fashion all the subtle but important things it does for us. But we also take hearing for granted; where are the comparable essays on mid-life deafness? Frustration is another possible motivator: the scent-deprived are justifiably angry that so little is known about the causes—much less the cure—of their condition.

Molly Birnbaum’s first-person essay is not the first one to appear in the Times.  In 2003, they ran “I was a Middle-Aged Anosmic” by Tom Miller, a fellow left with no sense of smell after a respiratory virus. Importantly, for the future of the genre, he listed the succession of doctors he consulted in an effort to find a cure: a dentist, a chiropractor, a homeopath, and an ear, nose, and throat specialist. This troph effectively conveys how little doctors can do for such patients.

After a fallow period in 2004, first-person anosmics really took off. In June, 2005, Matthew Kaminski, an American living in Paris, wrote in the Wall Street Journal about a cold that took down his sense of smell the summer before. He amusingly described the shrugs and indifference of his French physicians, and weighed the drawbacks and possible benefits of his newly reduced condition.

When Barbara Lantin tried to serve her children spoiled fish for dinner she realized that her sense of smell had quietly vanished. The cause turned out to be nasal polyps blocking airflow to the olfactory nerve endings high in her nasal passages. Once these growths were removed her smell ability was substantially restored, leaving her a ready-made premise for an August, 2005, feature in London’s Telegraph, “Scent is not to be sniffed at.”

The following month, Mick O’Hare wrote in New Scientist about his attempts to cure a smell loss that arrived with a head cold and never left. Like Lantin, O’Hare quotes smell experts on the causes and prevalence of anosmia. True to the genre, he lists the doctors consulted on his case: a GP, various ENTs, and a neurologist. Then he introduces what will become another classic element of the first-person anosmic: an obligatory mention of the 2004 Nobel Prize in medicine awarded to Linda Buck and Richard Axel for discovering the olfactory receptors. It’s timely, fascinating, and accurate, but of only glancing relevance to the clinical issues at hand. This major advance in basic science has yet to translate into new treatments for anosmia.

Next up, in January, 2006, was Anita Chang’s personal account, “The Scent of a Woman—Lost.” Her anosmia resulted from head trauma when she was hit by a car five months earlier. Life for her is now “like living behind a film of Saran Wrap.” Chang’s tone is upbeat, even though there was no evidence at press time that her smell abilities would ever return. While short on essential genre elements (she sees only one neurologist and doesn’t mention the Nobel Prize) she offers one uniquely distressing observation: “Not having my sense of smell has made kissing quite dull.”

By April, 2006, the anosmia trend had trickled all the way down to The Philadelphia Inquirer. Bryan David Finlayson relates how he lost his sense of smell eight years earlier after taking a tumble from a speeding skateboard in Santa Barbara. He’s bummed because he can’t smell the ocean anymore and frustrated that so little is known about his condition. Succession of doctors: one neurologist. Nobel Prize mention: absent.

Sometimes, as with Hayden’s late quartets, the greatest works appear when an art form is so well established no one expects anything further from it. So it is with Elizabeth Zierah, who wrote a genre masterpiece for Slate.com in June, 2008. A head cold three years earlier left her without a sense of smell, and the results were devastating: worse, she says, than the lingering sensorimotor aftereffects of a mild stroke suffered years before. “As the scentless and flavorless days passed, I felt trapped inside my own head, a kind of bodily claustrophobia, disassociated.” She has to force herself to eat and worries about personal hygiene. For one tantalizing week her smell ability returns and her spirits soar; but the reprieve proves temporary. Succession of doctors: internists, allergists, otolaryngologists, acupuncturists. Nobel Prize: yes. All genre elements present and accounted for.

All of which brings us back to Molly Birnbaum’s essay on Sunday. It lacks the key elements of the genre: no succession of doctors, no Nobel Prize. But her story—running under the slug “New York Observed”—is adorned with local scents: West Village coffee shops, public restrooms in Penn Station, containers of Chinese take-out going bad in the fridge. What’s remarkable is that these odors figure in her story because she is unable to smell them. It's a most post-modern literary achievement.

Where do we go from here? Clearly, we can expect first-person anosmics by celebrities to appear in People or even Vanity Fair. But I predict that the next big thing will be soul-searching essays by physicians who have labored in vain to help the victims of anosmia. Prediction number two: these first-person diagnostics will be accompanied by selfless pleas for more Federal research dollars.

So, who will be first? Jerome Groopman? Oliver Sacks? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Senator Reid's Wrinkled Nostril

At this morning’s official opening of the new Capitol Visitors Center in Washington, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) offered this olfactory appraisal of his fellow citizens:
My staff tells me not to say this, but I’m going to say it
anyway. In the summer because of the heat and high
humidity, you could literally smell the tourists coming
into the Capitol. It may be descriptive but it’s true.
Reid’s remarks, given by way of praising the Center's air conditioning, reflect a certain distance from and, shall we say, disdain for the common man.  Quite a contrast to the words found on the Statue of Liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Sen. Reid’s response to the tired, huddled mass of tourists is to lift high his can of air freshener.

Stay classy, dude.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Scratch Me, Sniff Me

People climbed aboard the scent marketing train with its December 1st “Sexiest Man Alive!” double issue. The move paid off: despite tough times for print advertising the magazine scored Emporio Armani Diamonds on cover 4 and full page ads for Christina Aguilera Inspire, Aramis Mustang Blue for Men, YSL L’Homme, Avon’s Patrick Dempsey Unscripted, Usher’s UR, and Clinque’s Happy.  Not to mention Hormel Chili and Chapstick. (Well, they’re aromatic too, aren’t they?)

Hugh Jackman may be the SMA! but scratch-and-sniff opps in the “Sexy Scents” story are limited to Chace “Freshly Cut Grass” Crawford, Taye “Vanilla, Chocolate, Sandalwood and Musk” Diggs, Chris “A Day at the Beach” Meloni, and Michael “YSL L’Homme” Phelps.

Jeez.  Talk about your extremely safe scent selections: cut grass and vanilla.  Wow.  No surprise that Aqua Boy continues to reach unashamedly for endorsement gold.  But Mr. Law & Order’s choice is truly lame—it brings to mind Seinfeld's retort to Kramer’s idea for Beach: The Cologne:
You think people are going to pay $80 to smell like
dead fish and seaweed? That’s why they shower.
The scratch-and-sniff placements were interesting: clavicle, armpit and nipple. When I did the National Geographic Smell Survey back in the back in the day, we got tons of reader mail including letters from women who described with anatomical precision where they found their husband/BF’s irresistible natural scent. All the same places. Hmm.

Puzzling that People didn’t trumpet the scent feature. Larry Flynt wouldn’t have missed that bet. He splayed “First Time Ever Scratch’N’Sniff Centerfold” in gigantic letters across the August, 1977 issue of Hustler. The cover image was a female hand with pubic hair peeking between the fingers. A Surgeon General type white box read:
Warning: To be smelled in the privacy of your home.
Not to be smelled by minors.
Now that was inspired, if supremely vulgar, scent marketing. P.T. Barnum would have been proud.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Future of Farting

The Smoking Gun reports that a twelve-year old boy was arrested for farting in school. If ever there was a case where smell and society collide, this is it. Naturally, I began to sniff around a bit.

On November 4th, teacher D.C. Carden at the Spectrum Jr./Sr. High School in Stuart, Florida wrote the kid up after he “continually disrupted his classroom environment by breaking wind and shutting off several computers.” Warren F. Pettway of the Martin County Sheriff Office questioned the little stinker at the scene, then arrested him on a charge of “Disruption of a School Function.” Sounds like a pretty extreme response to cutting the cheese.

But after Googling a little beyond the headlines, I’m inclined to give the teacher and officer Pettway some slack. The Spectrum School houses the Martin County School District’s “alternative education” program for grades 9 through 12. Alternative in this case meaning “alternative to expulsion.” The school made news last month when a 15-year old student was pepper-sprayed by a sheriff’s officer for being loudly disruptive during a lunchroom detention, refusing to calm down after being removed, and then physically threatening the officer. The Spectrum School doesn’t sound like a tea party.

Still, the story forces us to rethink the social implications of farting. Sociologists like Erving Goffman treat it as a failure of our “performance of self.” In other words, farting is a social error like yawning while the boss is talking, or leaving the men’s room with an unzipped fly: one has failed to convincingly act out the role of attentive subordinate or well-groomed professional. To Goffman, farting belongs to the subspecies of performance failure known as self-contamination. The bad impression of self-contamination can be repaired by an apology or other form of excuse making: “Oops, silly me—I spilled soup on my shirt.”

But how well does Goffman’s theory apply to the venting of intestinal gas? Not very well, I believe. First, there is no socially acceptable way to apologize for breaking wind. “Pardon me for farting” is not a phrase found in etiquette books—and in the absence of social norms creative apology making can go dreadfully wrong. For example, a guy who stank up a subway car on New York’s R line apologized to fellow subway passengers via the “Missed Connections” section of Craigslist—a section usually used for romantic near-misses. Dude, talk about “eeeuuuww.”

Goffman’s theory also fails for a second reason: it assumes that all gas is passed reluctantly or by accident. It doesn’t account for the deliberate farter. Here’s a classic example, related by Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye:
. . . then all of a sudden this guy sitting in the row in front of me,
Edgar Marsalla, laid this terrific fart. It was a very crude thing to
do, in chapel and all, but it was also quite amusing. Old Marsalla.
He damn near blew the roof off.
Farting for effect is time-honored adolescent tradition. Apology was probably the last thing on Edgar Marsalla’s mind. And this brings us back to the twelve-year old in Stuart, Florida. When does deliberate farting cross the line from low comedy to misdemeanor?

Two months ago in South Charleston, West Virginia, police were booking Jose Antonio Cruz on a DUI charge. While being fingerprinted, the suspect “lifted his leg and passed gas loudly” on Patrolman T.E. Parsons. The cops promptly added a charge of battery to the criminal complaint against Cruz. At the request of the county prosecutor a judge later dropped the battery charge.

But imagine that the charge stuck and Cruz was sentenced to jail time. Do you know what they do to deliberate farters in prison? Brian Bruggeman of Hershey, Nebraska found out the hard way. His repeated flatulence in the Lincoln County Jail caused his cellmate Jesse Dorris, of North Platte, to take exception. The two came to blows and Dorris was injured. Bruggeman is now charged with felony assault—he’s looking at five years if convicted.

It isn’t hard to see where all these cases are leading. No doubt the inventive minds of the American bar are already at work. At a minimum, deliberate farting is a private tort. If the noxious emission is on a grand enough scale it might constitute a public nuisance. Think of it—injunctions, monetary damages, even punitive damages. This could be the next frontier for mass tort litigation. The B&M Baked Beans company needs to review its product liability exposure immediately.

Deliberate farting implies reckless disregard for public health. New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg, who probably has never released an audible one, may institute a city-wide ban on indoor farting and prohibit restaurants from serving flatulegenic foods. There could be rulemaking at the federal level: if workers let loose on the assembly line, OSHA could declare an unsafe work environment and shut the plant down. Comment unfavorably on a coworker’s gassiness and you might find yourself charged with workplace harassment. And don’t forget the implications for global warming—expect the California Air Resources Board to monitor the VOC levels in rectal emissions on a household by household basis. Al Gore will urge you to reduce your carbon fartprint.

We’re doomed, I tell you, doomed.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Odorprints on a Wanted Poster

In Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi novel Fahrenheit 451, the fire department uses a hellish Mechanical Hound to track a person down based on his individually unique body odor. The “sensitive capillary hairs in the nylon-brushed nostrils” of the Hound pick up the scent. Its electronic brain is programmed to recognize ten thousand individual BO profiles. After cornering its prey the Hound dispatches it with a lethal injection from a retractable fang.

I thought of the Mechanical Hound the other day when I spotted a juicy headline on Drudge: ‘Odorprinting’ will identify people. I clicked on the item with my usual mix of emotions. Would this be a story about real technology or some type of National Enquirer nonsense?

The linked report from the Telegraph quotes Jae Kwak, a scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. According to Kwak, genetically-based body odors are as unique as fingerprints; he thinks it may be possible to build devices that identify people based on their BO.

Intriguing. But in world of science-by-press-release it pays to be skeptical of media stories. Kwak could be a quack. Far better to examine the actual study that brought him to the Telegraph’s attention: in this case a paper in the open-access, online journal PLoS ONE.

The needle on my Bogosity Meter twitched as soon as I began to read: the experiment has nothing to do with humans—it’s about two strains of highly inbred mice.

I’m very familiar with these mice: I studied them years ago when I was on the faculty of the Monell Center. Originally bred for cancer research, the strains are genetically identical except for a set of genes that controls immune response. These so-called MHC genes are associated with a strain-specific scent. Mice can smell the difference and prefer to mate with mice of the other strain (a case of “opposites attract”). In addition, the mousey BO is distinct enough that humans can smell the difference between the two strains. (An experimental result of mine that I published here.)

It is widely believed that diet alters body odor. If so, can diet obscure MHC-linked BO differences? This is the question Kwak and his colleagues set out to answer using the two mouse strains and two kinds of commercially produced mouse chow. They trained “sensor” mice to recognize the scent of urine from mice with a specific combination of MHC type and diet. Then they let them choose between mice differing in various combinations of genes and diet. The result? The sensor mice failed to pick out the MHC-linked scent. In a direct match-up, diet-related BO overwhelmed the differences in genetically-based BO.

Other mice were trained to recognize a particular MHC scent from mice fed the same diet. Once trained, they were able to pick out that MHC scent from mice fed another type of diet. In other words, the genetically-linked BO signal persists amid stronger dietary signals and properly trained mice can find it. Chemical analysis revealed forty-nine molecules in mouse urine that vary with diet and MHC type. From these, Kwak and colleagues were able to construct a statistical model that predicts MHC type as accurately as the trained sensor mice. Pretty cool stuff.

Kwak et al. go on to claim “it should be possible to develop a detector to identify individual odortypes that can ignore environmental perturbations such as diet variation.” Once again the needle on my Bogosity Meter bounces a bit. Why? Because the mice in question weren’t recognized as individuals (Bob, Jane, John, Wendy, etc.) but as members of genetically identical groups (the Smith-family clones versus the Jones-family clones). Clonal sibship is one thing, individual identity is another. A device to “detect individual odorprints in humans” is several leaps of logic away from the results of this study.

In Fahrenheit 451, the fugitive fireman Guy Montag successfully evades the Mechanical Hound by swapping clothes with an old man, dousing himself with whiskey, and floating down a river. If pursued by trained mice from Monell, he could simply have popped a breath mint and taken it easy.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Air Pollution and the Scent of Digital Snapdragons

“Ozone is killing off the sweet smells of summer,” cried the Times of London last April, joined by a chorus of media voices ranging from ABC News to the Drudge Report. What caused the commotion? A claim that air pollution is destroying the scent of flowers. The Times painted a dire picture of “bees struggling to catch a whiff of the fading flower smells.” According to the Guardians science correspondent, “the lack of scent means [bees] cannot find the flowers, which provide the nectar needed for food. In turn this affects the plants, which are less likely to be fertilised.”

Sound the alarm, it’s an eco-apocalypse!  Manmade air pollution is destroying flower scent, frustrating bees, and threatening plant life.  The entire ecosystem, or at least the decorative border in Grandma’s garden, could be on the verge of collapse.

This unsettling prospect was based on a University of Virginia study funded in part by the National Science Foundation and publicized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, solidly respectable institutions all. Does this mean we should be worried? Let’s take a closer look at the study.

The fact that ozone and related air pollutants are highly reactive molecules is textbook chemistry. The fact that ozone destroys molecules commonly found in floral scent—such as linalool, beta-ocimene, and beta-myrcene—is also well known. Professor Jose Fuentes and two graduate students in the UVA department of environmental sciences looked at how these chemical reactions play out on a large scale. They claim that the ozone in polluted air drastically shrinks the distance snapdragons can broadcast their scent, potentially making it harder for honey bees to find them.

This conclusion should be taken with a large pinch of salt. For starters, no flowers or bees or fragrances were observed in the course of the study. The entire project was a computer simulation, based on a hypothetical one cubic meter patch of garden containing exactly ten hypothetical snapdragon plants. Instead of measuring actual scent production, the research team keypunched in some estimates. And since one can’t measure wind and temperature above an imaginary garden patch, they input historical microclimate data from the university’s experimental farm.

Computer modeling is a useful scientific method and there’s a certain digital elegance in blowing mathematically simulated pollution-laden breezes over virtual snapdragons. But in doing so the research team left out some basic biology.

For example, the statistical air currents in Modelville, USA spread odors evenly through space, while in the real world of backyards and alfalfa fields scent travels in discrete plumes. (Light an incense stick outdoors and watch what happens.) Insects use the physics of odor dispersion to their advantage—they home in on an odor source by flying zigzag patterns back and forth across the plume.

Here’s another difference: digital snapdragons in Modelville release a single, mathematically invariant scent; in the real world flowers vary the blend of their perfume. Fragrance chemists have time-sampled floral scents and find that the mix of components varies through the course of the day. Bees take this in stride and respond quickly to changes in a target scent. They have an impressive array of odor receptors and are better able to learn about smells than either fruit flies or mosquitoes. It’s more than likely they could find their way to snapdragons on a smoggy day. In any case, scientists would do well to test real-life bees on some living flowers before sounding the next eco-alarm.

To be fair, Professor Fuentes and colleagues were careful to label the bee theory as speculation. The folks at the UVA press office weren’t so restrained: they stated flat out that air pollution was “inhibiting” the ability of insects to find flowers. The world media took this more vivid but less accurate summary and ran with it.

Science relies on skepticism. Without it, experimental results go unchallenged, theories go unquestioned, and speculation runs rampant. The sounding of an ecological alarm is no reason to suspend skepticism.  Some scientific scenarios just don’t pass the sniff test. In the case of Professor Fuentes’ flowers, just ask yourself: who are you going to believe, a computer-based Lagrangian diffusion model or your own lying nose?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Happiness is a Perfume

Happiness is a perfume you cannot pour on others
without getting a few drops on yourself.

Does that sound like something you read on a smiley-face inspirational poster? You’re not alone.

Lots of people attribute this saying to writer and motivational speaker Og Mandino. Joel Weiss does so in his book The Quotable Manager: Inspiration for Business and Life (2006). So do Patrick Combs and Jack Canfield in Major in Success (2007). In addition, lots of web sites credit Mandino as the author.

Mandino did, in fact, use the line in at least two of his books: A Better Way to Live (1990) and The Choice (1984).

There’s only one problem. The quote also appeared in the Illinois Medical Journal in 1916 and in Character Lessons in American Biography, published in 1909. Og Mandino was born in 1923.

So if Og Mandino didn’t write it, who did?

According to The Forbes Book of Business Quotations by Edward C. Goodman and Ted Goodman (1997), the original author was Ralph Waldo Emerson. The Goodmans may have followed the lead of William Gardiner who in Getting a Foothold (1927) gave Emerson as the source. Indeed, “happiness is a perfume you cannot pour on others without getting a few drops on yourself” has the signature sappiness and declarative form of the maxims Emerson (1803-1882) used to lard his speeches and essays.

There’s only one problem. Neither the Goodmans or Gardiner (or anyone else making the claim that I have seen) provides a citation to Emerson's work. Despite research in the library among Emerson’s collected works and dictionaries of proverbs, I have not been able to locate where he said it or anything like it.

But wait—there’s an older version of this saying:
Happiness is a perfume that one cannot shed over another
without a few drops falling on oneself.
Here “shed over” replaces “pour,” and “a few drops falling on oneself” replaces “getting a few drops on yourself.”

The older version was popular on “gems of wisdom” pages in periodicals such as Arthur’s Home Magazine (1863) and Godey’s Magazine (1867). It also appeared in newsletters of religious groups such as the Society of Friends (1865), the Methodist Episcopal Church (1857), and the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints (1913).

But here’s the odd thing: while it turns up at least fourteen times between 1857 and 1913 it never appears with an attribution to Emerson (or anyone else for that matter).

So where did the old version of “happiness is a perfume” come from?

As far as I can tell, it was first printed as an anonymous item on page 147 of the October 11, 1856 issue of Punch, the satirical magazine based in London. The following year it appeared in the American edition of Punch’s Pocket-Book of Fun: Being Cuts and Cuttings from the Wit and Wisdom of Twenty-five Volumes of Punch.

In the end, I think it possible but unlikely that “happiness is a perfume” was written by Emerson, especially considering the maxim printed just below it on the original page of Punch:
There are two things a man rarely forgets—his first love
and his first cigar.
The high-minded Ralph Waldo sucking on a stogie? I think not.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Marcel Proust Gets Up My Nose

It's not like I have a personal issue with Marcel Proust--he's been dead for almost eighty-six years.  His mega-novel In Search of Lost Time may well deserve its lofty reputation, though I admit it puts me to sleep.  No, what's so wrong and so irritating is that Proust has become the undeserving poster-boy of olfactory memory.

The latest example hit the web this morning:
ScienceDaily (Oct. 17, 2008) — When French memoirist
Marcel Proust dipped a pastry into his tea, the distinctive
scent it produced suddenly opened the flood gates of his

In a series of experiments with sleeping mice, researchers
at the Duke University Medical Center . . .
First off, let's stipulate that the Duke team did a fine experiment and they are entitled to publicize it.  My beef isn't with the sleeping mice; it's with Proust's pastry and the flood gates.  

It's a complete misrepresentation of what Proust actually wrote.  Here's why.

For most of us, the magic of smell memory is that it transports us instantly to a vividly detailed, often emotionally charged scene from the past.  It's a remarkable experience.

But when the narrator of Swann's Way (a stand-in for Proust) dunks a madeleine in a cup of tea the aroma produces a vague and perplexing emotion.  He struggles for several minutes to pinpoint it.  He agonizes.  He re-dunks. This goes on for five tedious pages until the young Marcel finally recalls having had tea and madeleines as a kid.

Whatever it was Proust described, it was not the opening of flood gates, the flicking of a switch, or the sudden flash of detailed sense-memory.

On top of this, people frequently credit Proust with being the first to describe odor-evoked memory.  As I show in my book, this is a complete crock.  The vividness of smell memory was a common theme well before Proust's time.  It was written about decades earlier by such great American authors as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Oliver Wendell Holmes.

So credit where credit is due.  It's time to let the bad Proust meme fade from memory.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Sons of California

There’s a new Penn State cologne. The mind boggles.

Masik Collegiate Fragrances plans an entire line “inspired by” a school’s colors, mascot, landmarks, campus trees, town character, fight songs . . . you get the idea.

Next up are mostly SEC schools with lots of airtime on ESPN. Nuts. My Pac-10 gets no respect. Except for USC. Hmmm. The fragrance brief for Eau de Trojan? Leather upholstery in Daddy’s Porsche. Sunscreen. Mommy’s pearls. Doing 90 on the 110. Pete Carroll’s moisturizer. Prophylactics (nah, too obvs).

Stanfurd? Money and microchips. Freshly watered fairways. An air of general superiority.

Oregon State: The Beavers. Better not go there.

Cal Berkeley (alma mater dear). Cannabis. Tofu. Espresso at the original Peet's. Sweaty Birkenstocks. Home-brewed biodiesel. Eucalyptus. Homeless ass-crack. The grill vent at Oscar's. Street vendor incense. Cannon smoke on Tightwad Hill. Braised Bolinas kid goat with quince and saffron downstairs at Chez Panisse. The chemical toilet and parking lot dust at the Sea Breeze. Mandy Aftel's scented garden.

Got all that?  Good.  Have three trials on my desk by Monday.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Dreaming of Smell

Do we dream in odor? Artists and poets think so—for example, the decadent 19th century writer J.-K. Huysmans described a vivid dream sequence involving scent and color—but the question has rarely been investigated scientifically. Back at the dawn of scientific psychology an instructor at Wellesley College named Mary Whiton Calkins analyzed dream diaries kept by two volunteers over a six to eight week period. Her results, published as “Statistics of Dreams” in the American Journal of Psychology in 1893, showed that smells appear in dreams only occasionally: visual and auditory perceptions are far more common. A follow-up study at Wellesley by Sarah Weed and Florence Hallam in 1896 estimated that odors show up in 15% or less of all dreams.

It was a hundred years before the question was tackled again. In 1998, researchers at McGill University in Montreal asked 164 people whether they had ever experienced sensations of smell or taste in their dreams; 41% of women said yes, as did 35% of men. The McGill team also gave the participants a bedside log in which to write their dreams each morning. They ended up collecting 3,372 dream reports. About half of these mentioned auditory impressions but only 1% mentioned smell. The diaries also revealed a huge sex difference. As in so many other measures of odor perception, women are more tuned in than men: odorous dreams were recorded in the diaries of 20.9% of women but only 2.0% of men. It appears that dream smelling is a widespread but low frequency phenomenon: in other words, it’s something many people have experienced but not all that often.

Can odors from the real world make their way into our dreams? Since the early sleep studies of the 1950s, we have known that external stimuli such as light and sound are occasionally incorporated into dream content. Play music next to someone in the REM stage of sleep, for example, and he may dream that he is conducting an orchestra. In 1988, sleep researchers at Cal State Sacramento exposed people to a smell for five minutes during a REM episode. They woke them a minute later and asked them what they were dreaming. An odor was mentioned about 19% of the time, a rate of dream incorporation similar to other types of external stimuli.

Here’s a typical result from the study:
The subject was presented with a freshly cut lemon while
in REM sleep. The resulting dream was: “I dreamed I was
in Golden Gate Park. I was walking by some gardenias.
They were just opening. All of a sudden, I could smell the
gardenias, but they smelled like lemons instead of gardenias.
The researchers used both pleasant smells (lemon, peanut butter, roses, etc.) and unpleasant smells (match smoke, dog feces, onion, etc.). The pleasant smells were more likely to show up in dreams (on 27% of attempts) than were unpleasant ones (11% of tries). Oddly, the pleasantness of the smell had little effect on the emotional tone of the dream itself: roughly a third of all odor-stimulated dreams were unpleasant in tone.

A similar experiment was reported a few weeks ago at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Otolaryngology in Chicago. A German team found that unpleasant smells produced dreams with predominantly negative emotional content, while nice smells made for pleasant dreams. This yet-to-be-published result is slightly at odds with the Sacramento State finding, but one thing seems clears: The boundary between dreamscape and smellscape is porous. Scents from the real world stimulate our sleeping nose and sneak into the nighttime unreality of our dreams.

The Australian psychologists Richard Stevenson and Trevor Case examined dream smells in a questionnaire study in 2004. Of the 284 participants, 26.4% had had olfactory dreams. When descriptions of these smell dreams were analyzed about half turned out to be food related—with bacon leading the way. Smoke or burning odors appeared in 21% and body or animal odors turned up in another 21%. As in the waking world, smell sensations in dreams were briefer and more emotional than the visual experiences.

Stevenson and Case also had their volunteers fill our questionnaires on visual and olfactory mental imagery ability. (Full disclosure: the olfactory questionnaire was one I co-wrote with Melissa Crouch and Sarah Kemp and published in the Journal of Mental Imagery.) They discovered multiple links between dream smelling and smell ability in the waking world. First, olfactory dreamers experience both visual and olfactory imagery more vividly than non-olfactory dreamers. Second, people with more vivid mental imagery for smells have more vivid smell dreams. A follow-up experiment found a third link: olfactory dreamers are better at identifying odors in a smell test.

All of this suggests to me that some people are simply more tuned into odors than others. Smell-oriented people—those who identify odors accurately and imagine them vividly—tend to dream in smell as well. Olfactory talent shows itself all around the clock.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Coming Soon to Your Wallet

An entertaining take on scented credit cards.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Small Fish, Big Stink

The New York Daily News reported yesterday that local residents are outraged about stinky dead fish. In the town of Howard Beach, located in Queens just west of JFK airport, there’s a canal called the Shellbank Basin. It opens into Jamaica Bay, home to fish known as menhaden (or “bunker” in the local argot). Every so often, predators like bluefish drive a school of menhaden into the canal, where low oxygen content kills many of them. The result—a floating mass of rotting fish and loud complaints from the neighbors.

No doubt it’s an unpleasant situation, but it’s hardly unique.

Bad-smelling fish die-offs are a regular occurrence in some places. The Neawanna River on the Oregon coast is periodically choked with dead anchovies. In the District of Columbia alewives swim up the Potomac River from the Chesapeake Bay to spawn in the Tidal Basin. The females die after laying eggs.  Sea gulls gorge themselves on the sushi and strew the stinky leftovers among the Japanese Cherry Trees.  The timing is bad for tourism: it usually happens only days before the beginning of the Cherry Blossom Festival.

Alewives achieve their olfactory apotheosis in Lake Michigan, where they give Chicago its most notorious malodor. When alewives first entered the Great Lakes in the 1930s they were kept in check by the native lake trout which preyed on them. When lamprey eels began killing the trout, the alewife population soared—by the late 1960s they were about eighty percent of all fish in Lake Michigan. The annual post-spawning die-off grew to epic proportions. The one in 1967 was the biggest and stinkiest of them all: an estimated one million pounds of alewives washed up along the Chicago lakefront. Selective poisoning of the lampreys, and reintroduction of predators like trout and coho salmon, have since reduced the alewife population to ten percent of the lake’s fish. But each spring some alewife carcasses float to shore and begin to stink.

UPDATE 9/16/08, 3:25 p.m.
It looks like it's not just a New York thing.  The NBC-TV affiliate in Hartford reported today that dead menhaden are floating to the surface of the Branford River in Branford, Connecticut, and stinking up the joint. (Branford is on the shoreline of Long Island Sound.) According to Channel 30, state environmental officials attribute the fish-kill to those pesky bluefish driving schools of menhaden up the river into low-oxygen waters.

Monday, September 15, 2008

10,000 Different Smells? Enough Already.

Writing for the UK’s Daily Mail this week, journalist Josh Sims has a piece called “15 Things You Didn’t Know About Men’s Fragrances.” Many of his items are built around numbers—it’s a nice hook, with titles such as “30 Minutes - The Time It Takes for ‘Base Notes’ to Appear,” and “33 Percent of Men’s Perfumes Are Worn by Women.” Good fun and entertaining.

But then he offers this bit: “10,000 - The Number of Different Odours We Can Distinguish.” Here I have to blow the whistle.

Ever since I began working in the psychology of odor perception, I’ve seen references to 10,000 different smells. It shows up everywhere—from fashion magazines to scientific journals. It was even cited by the Nobel Foundation when it awarded the 2004 prize in Physiology or Medicine to Linda Buck and Richard Axel for discovering the olfactory receptor genes. So one can hardly blame Johs Sims for thinking it was a number he could bank on.

But, as I wrote in What the Nose Knows, “Something about it has always bothered me—why such a nice fat round number? Why was there no date of discovery? And, strangest of all, why did nobody take credit for it?”

I decided to discover the source of this mystery number for myself. After a lot of time in the library, and after following innumerable dead ends, I finally found it. Back in 1927, two American chemists—Ernest C. Crocker and Lloyd F. Henderson—were looking for an objective way to classify odors. They came up with a numerical coding system in which any smell could be assigned a four-digit identifier. According to the mathematics of the Crocker-Henderson system, it was theoretically possible to identify 6,561 different smells. Years later, Crocker rounded this up to 10,000, the number everyone has been citing ever since.

The trouble with these numbers—whether 6,561 or 10,000—is that they represent a theoretical upper limit based on a very specific set of starting assumptions, namely four odor standards and nine-point rating scales. These numbers are not based on experimental data. Crocker and Henderson never attempted to count all the different odors that humans can smell. Nor has anyone else as far as I know. And in any case, it turned out that people couldn’t rate smells reliably using four standards and nine-point scales. The system was eventually abandoned.

Don’t get me wrong—I think Ernest Crocker and Lloyd Henderson were innovators and optimists in the best “can do” tradition of American enterprise. But the figure of 10,000 different odors is, from a scientific perspective, utterly worthless. Now that my book is out and the story has been told, it’s time to lay the 10,000 number to rest.

Monday, September 8, 2008

On Old Olympus’ Towering Top

Generations of medical students memorized the names of cranial nerves I through XII with some version of the rhyme, “On Old Olympus’ Towering Top A Finn And German Viewed Some Hops.” The clues lie in the first letter of each word, which matches that of the corresponding nerve: Olfactory, Optic, Oculomotor, Trochlear, Trigeminal, and so on. The olfactory nerve is Cranial Nerve I, hence the name of this blog.

Without ever intending to, I’ve devoted most of my professional lifetime to the study of odor perception and everything that goes with it: from synaesthesia, olfactory memory, mood and emotion, to fragrance chemistry, neuroanatomy, and molecular biology. I've also become knowledgeable about product development, brand management, marketing, corporate behavior and entrepreneurship.

What I love about the sense of smell is the interplay between science and popular culture. I’ve written about this in my book and I’m always finding new and intriguing examples. When I do, I intend to blog about them here on First Nerve.