Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Hot Topics for Current Chinese Science

I’m an independent researcher with no university affiliation. But because I regularly publish in peer-reviewed scientific journals I get daily spam from sketchy “journals” asking me to contribute a paper. The pitch is often agrammatical and weirdly formal (“Dear esteemed gracious professor”). They go right to the trash folder.

However, I got one a week ago that has me thinking seriously about a response.

Dear Dr. Gilbert,

An exciting mega Science journal, “Current Chinese Science” is launched this year by Bentham Science Publishers. The Nobel Laureate Prof. Ferid Murad and 43 Academicians of Chinese Academy of Sciences have already joined as Honorary Senior Advisors of this exciting new mega Science Journal. Prof. Atta-ur-Rahman FRS (UNESCO Science Laureate and Academician Chinese Academy of Sciences) is the Editor-in-Chief of this Journal

Current Chinese Science is not limited to a specific field but instead covers all major fields of science, technology, and medicine, through dedicated sections. The Journal is currently in the process of appointing Section Editors in various disciplines.  In this connection, we would like to invite you to join as section Editor in one of the following disciplines.  If you agree to this, please kindly send us your complete CV and a list of your recent publications along with the name of the discipline and sub-section, so that we can send your CV for Editor-in-Chief’s consideration.

    1. Aerospace Sciences

    2. Analytical Chemistry

    (. . . / . . .)

    24. Pharmacology

    25. Structural Engineering

Your responsibilities, if you accept, would entail soliciting one thematic issue each year in a hot area of the journal.

We need the abstract of the thematic issue with a proposed list of authors within 4 months of the appointment of each Section Editor. Section Editors are also expected to occasionally solicit/contribute review articles. 


We look forward to hearing from you in this regard.


Hasan Khan
Editorial Manager
Current Chinese Science

This sounds like too good a deal to pass up. Here’s the reply I drafted:

Dear Mr. Khan,

Thank you for your invitation to become a Section Editor for Current Chinese Science.

I have several exciting ideas for thematic issues in hot areas.

1. Research under constraints: Effects of criminal indictment on productivity of scientists associated with the Thousand Talents program.

    Proposed contributors: 

    Dr. Charles Lieber, Joshua and Beth Friedman University Professor and former chairman of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Harvard University

    Dr. Qing Wang, formerly of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation

    Dr. Simon Saw-Teong Ang, a professor and researcher at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville

    Dr. Xiao-Jiang Li, formerly of Emory University

    Dr. Anming Hu, formerly in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Tennessee

2. Organs from executed donors: Is the Chinese transplantation experience a useful model for the West?

3. The “Fee for Service” Solution to “Publish or Perish”

    Proposed contributors:

    Hoping to recruit numerous authors from The Jining First People’s Hospital in Shandong province or whichever paper mill churns out clinical papers for their staff.

Looking forward to your reply.


UPDATE June 19, 2021

Well, here’s some good local news.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

A Skull Full of Mush


There’s an interesting paper to be presented later this month at an Association for Computing Machinery virtual conference on the theme of Interactive Media Experiences.

The paper, by three engineers and a psychologist from the University of Liverpool, is titled “Predicting the colour associated with odours using an electronic nose.” The cross-modal associations between scent and color have been of interest for ages; my colleagues and I helped put them on a quantitative basis with a couple of papers in the late 1990s. The Liverpool group’s new twist is getting an e-nose to predict the color associations.

That’s all fine. It’s of a piece with attempts to predict a molecule’s odor character from physical parameters such as molecular weight, shape, charge, etc. The authors of the new study claim to find a 70 to 81% “machine-human similarity rating.” Whatever. I’m not that interested in the details of their e-nose or experimental protocols, but I’m fascinated by their conceptual point of view as expressed in this sentence fragment in the conclusions section:

Thus, highlighting the possibility of using e-noses to predict human olfactory perception and implying that the colour associated with odours are partly written into the molecular properties of the stimulus [5].

Reference 5 is to the color-odor study—using human noses—that I published with Sarah E. Kemp. In it, we discussed the psychological associations that emerged between the test odors and measurable parameters of color. Nowhere in that paper did we attribute those association to the “molecular properties” of the odor stimuli. It is a mistake for the Liverpool researchers to cite that paper in support of their claim.

The bigger problem is with their philosophical view, namely that an odor’s color associations “are partly written into the molecular properties of the stimulus.” This is a dumb but persistent conceptualization that’s popped up before. Here’s what I said about it in 2009 while commenting on a study by Mandairon et al. called “Humans and mice express similar olfactory preferences.”

What I can’t understand is Mandairon’s endorsement of a mathematical model that predicts odor pleasantness. The idea is that odor pleasantness is “partially dependent on the odorants’ physicohemical properties.” Of course this has to be true at some level: different molecules produce different smells because they have different structures. But Mandairon et al. go beyond tautology; the shared response of mice and men suggests

that olfactory preferences are indeed partially engraved in the structure of the odorant molecule


there is an initial part of the [odor] percept which is innate and engraved in the odorant structure.

Perceptions engraved on the molecule? This is simply a bizarre way to think. What else is engraved on a molecule of phenylethanol: Visual associations to red roses? The name of my florist? An olfactory memory of my dead grandmother?

Perceptions happen in the central nervous system of an organism. To talk as if odor pleasantness resides in the structural features of a molecule is animistic thinking, pure and simple.

My objection to Mandairon, et al. applies equally to Ward, et al. No matter how cool the math and the engineering, the idea that odor-linked human perceptions are “written” or “engraved” in the structural features of a molecule is rubbish and unworthy of a place in scientific discourse.

The studies discussed here are “Predicting the colour of odours using an electronic nose,” by Ryan J. Ward, Shammi Rahman, Sophie Wuerger and Alan Marshall, published in SensoryX ‘21: Workshop on Multisensory Experiences, together with IMX 2021: ACM International Conference on Interactive Media Experiences, June 21-23, 2021, and “Humans and mice express similarolfactory preferences,” by Nathalie Mandairon, Johan Poncelet, Mousafa Bensafi and Anne Didier, published in PLoS One 4:e4209, 2009.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Farewell, My Lovely


Here’s a new twist on the stinky grotesquery known to fussy writers as the “corpse flower,” but whose formal botanical name—Amorphophallus titanum— suggests something more delightfully vulgar.

It seems an A. titanum blossomed “in the wild,” i.e., outside the premises of a botanical garden. The site—a public park in Singapore—is not that wild, but it is in the vicinity of the species’ natural range.

Someone mentioned the site on social media and faster than you can say “Sam Spade” the plant was dug up and stolen.

Damn. There goes another plot point I had planned for a NickZollicker novella tentatively titled The Maltese Penis.

Monday, June 7, 2021

The Memory Meme that Refuses to Die


A reader’s letter to the Financial Times relates a charming story about her son, who as a two-year-old blurted out that a lady in a store smelled like his godmother. Lo and behold, both women wore L’Heure Bleue by Guerlain.

Thirty-one years later, he pulls the same stunt at a restaurant: he correctly identifies his godmother’s signature scent on a lady sitting at the next table.

The letter writer thought she was illustrating a point made in a previous edition of the paper, namely “wouldn’t it be a fine thing if there was a good smell that reminded people of you?” In fact, she did so quite effectively. We can also applaud her son for having a good nose, a keen awareness of scent, and a long memory.

But why did the FT have to spoil it all by slugging the letter “The power of scent is like a Proustian madeleine”? There is nothing Proustian about this anecdote. The first incident shows a toddler with a precocious awareness of smell. The second shows that as an adult he retains his smell identification ability, along with a good memory.

In neither instance was he transported to a full-blown evocation of an earlier time and place—whether by the instantaneous, effortless process described by many pre-Proustian writers, or by the slow, labored process described by Proust in Swann’s Way.

My guess is that some junior editorial assistant probably read French Literature at Cambridge and simply couldn’t resist justifying all that tuition money by working in a Proust reference.

Basta. In the interest of accuracy and history, isn't it time we begin to forget Proust’s madeleine?

Friday, June 4, 2021

Perfume Platitudes: Paging Crash Davis


The first law of fragrance marketing requires that every smellebrity introducing a perfume attest to a personal role in its creation.

The legendary Dolly Parton, now launching her first scent—Dolly: Scent from Above—has complied with tradition and issued the correct formulaic statement:

“I felt like a mad scientist trying to find the right combination, but we did and it took us about two years.”

Regarding her decision to enter the beauty business, she is also quoted as saying:

“I’m going to start with perfume. Everybody has always told me how good I smell.”

Wut? That sounds like an enormous non sequitur. But then we note this on her website:

“The truth is, I have been blending my own scent for years. It’s a combination of bath oils, powders and perfumes that have become my “signature” and is known everywhere I go. It’s time for me to share this with you. I hope you enjoy!”

IFRA? I don’t need no stinkin’ IFRA!

FirstNerve is inclined to award Ms. Parton a honorary Mad Scientist degree for her fearless personal efforts at blending.

Meanwhile Iggy Azalea reaches back to her long-neglected Australian roots (she grew up in Mullumbimby, NSW) in making the de rigueur claim of personal involvement in the creation of her new fragrance: 

Iggy said she was inspired by Australian native flora when concocting the aroma.

Apparently Australian sandalwood is a top note in Devil’s Advocate. [Top note?—Ed.] [Whatev. Just go with the flow.]

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Trending on Twitter


Everyone loves ISDP humor.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Things that “Everyone Knows”


Among the things that “everyone knows” because it is just so damned obvious is that smoking impairs your sense of smell. Yet when one tabulates the studies looking at tobacco use and odor perception, the conventional wisdom crumbles more easily than the ash on a Macanudo. 

I wrote about this in What the Nose Knows, and studies since then have confirmed my skepticism: some find a link, others don’t.

A newly published “scoping review” collated the results of over 700 studies, seeking statistical associations between “social determinants of health” and olfactory function. They found some significant links (e.g., exposure to environmental and occupational toxins), but “the associations between olfactory dysfunction and education level and lifestyle factors such as smoking and drinking seem to be much more elusive.” (Translation: “we know those factors matter, we just couldn’t find convincing evidence.”)

How much more elusive was smoking as a factor? This elusive:

Of the 28 studies that examined smoking, 12 demonstrated significant positive correlation between smoking status and [olfactory dysfunction].

In other words, the majority of studies (16/28) found no link. The conventional wisdom is still batting less than .500.

The study discussed here is “Association between social determinants of health and olfactory function: a scoping review,” by Joel James, Avraham M. Tsvik, Sei Y. Chung, John Usseglio, David A. Gudis, Jonathan B. Overdevest, published in International Forum of Allergy and Rhinology published online May 28, 2021.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Amorphophallus titanum: End of the Grift?


In Alameda, California a “local gardener” invited people to an abandoned gas station and let them smell and touch his giant misshapen penis . . . plant. Nothing sketchy about this at all.

Is it just me, or has the pace of stinky “corpse flower” blossomings slowed since the pandemic? We were usually good for several such exhibitions a year at botanical gardens around the county. All that was missing were the tour t-shirts.

Perhaps specimens of giant misshapen penis plant—the literal name according to its Latin binomial, not the consumer-friendly sanitized version—all just “happened” to cease sending up their grotesque, foul-smelling inflorescences at the same time. Or perhaps their owners adjusted lighting and feeding regimes to delay the blessed events until such time as paying throngs are once again able to attend in person. Just saying.

If this cynical conjecture is correct, we should witness an epic outbreak of penis plant erections later this year. (It’ll be the biggest interdimensional crossrip since the Tunguska blast of 1909!—Ed.)

Meanwhile, in a plot twist that sounds like it was ripped from the pages of an upcoming Nick Zollicker story, the Witte Museum in San Antonio plans to fake it till they make it. That is, the museum will present a life-size model of an A. titanum blossom and allow patrons to sample a recreation of its aroma from a “smell station.” Welcome to the Audio-Animatronics® version! It’s the Disneyfication of giant misshapen penis plants.

I expect the San Antonio folks will be getting an earful any day now from the  cartel of botanical garden directors.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

A Gloomy Day on Social Media


It snowed a couple of inches yesterday across the Front Range of the Rockies and this morning the lilacs and the aspen saplings at FirstNerve Manor were bent under the icy weight. It’s been dark, overcast, and raining all day long. One stares out the window waiting for something better to happen. Then, just when one begins to reorganize the pencil drawer comes a flash of insight—what a perfect afternoon to weed out the LinkedIn connections!

Some calls are easy—those people you interacted with years ago but whose careers have gone off in entirely different directions from your own. It’s unlikely you will ever have a professional interest in common with them again. So—“Remove Connection.”

Then there are the connections that bring you up short—the old friend who died unexpectedly nearly a year ago. It seems callous to delete the link, but even a candle lit in his memory would eventually burn out. (“Remove Connection.”) Then the likeable guy you pitched some business with before he dropped dead after a squash game a decade ago. You went to his funeral and memorialized him here. Does a persistent online link express anything further? (“Remove Connection.”) Ditto the former client’s late husband who you liked and respected.

Even more depressing is to find the connections who, once in senior positions, are now retired. One thinks, uncharitably, that they are now just taking up virtual space in your LinkedIn connections. (“Remove Connection,” “Remove Connection,” etc.)

The same goes for academics who have levitated themselves into “emeritus” status. (“Remove Connection.”) And then, a long-ignored discontent bubbles up—why link to any academics at all? Professors are easily found via their campus web pages. Basta. (Three more “Remove Connections.”)

The late afternoon sun has broken through and the birds are singing once again. The virtual thicket has been thinned out and is ready to welcome new tendrils of professional linkage. Time for a drink.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Yeah, About That TPS Report Cover Sheet . . .


Unlike ex-Initech employee Peter Gibbons, I’m a fan of TPS reports. That is to say, studies of terpene synthases (TPS) in cannabis. These are the plant enzymes that turn precursor molecules into the various fragrant terpenes behind each strain’s aroma profile. Some TPS enzymes convert geranyl diphosphate into a slew of monoterpenes, while others convert farnesyl diphosphate to a bunch of sesquiterpenes.

Identification of cannabis terpene synthases and the genes that produce them is a relatively new field. Canadian researchers led by Judith K. Booth at UBC in Vancouver were early leaders in this effort and last fall they published another study. This one, in Plant Physiology, was the subject of a “news and views” piece in the same issue, written by Marc-Sven Roell at the Heinrich-Heine University in Düsseldorf.

Like Bill Lumbergh, I have some issues with Roell’s TPS report cover sheet. Specifically, with his claims about what is required for future cannabis breeding efforts aimed at fragrance and flavor.

To predict and design cannabis smell and taste to meet consumer demands, two milestones have to be reached. First, a comprehensive understanding of terpene composition is required, which can be achieved by using quantitative terpene profiling in existing cultivars. Second the underlying molecular and biochemical mechanisms leading to these distinct profiles need to be understood.

Roell insists that we must first know everything about terpenes in all cultivars—their complete chemical composition plus their physiological means of production—before we can get around to breeding hybrids with specific consumer appeal.

Notice anything missing? How about sensory evaluation of the smell and taste of the existing cultivars? And how about relating perceived aroma to differences in terpene composition?

Roell no doubt expects to find cultivar to cultivar differences in terpene composition, which he assumes will equate to differences in aroma and flavor. But differences in chemical composition don’t necessarily translate into perceptible differences in aroma, much less differences that are meaningful to cannabis consumers. So his strategy of starting with comprehensive knowledge of terpene composition will be enormously inefficient.

This objection also cuts in the opposite direction. As a plant physiologist, Roell ought to know that even within genetically identical clones, terpene composition can vary with growing conditions. Thus, it is possible that within-clone variation could result in perceptible aroma differences.

So either way you look at it, Roell’s insistence that baseline chemical data is an absolute prerequisite for breeding better smelling cannabis is pretty weak, especially when he totally neglects sensory measurement.

In fact, I’d argue that the best way to assist breeding efforts is begin with quantitative sensory evaluation of a range of existing cultivars. Next, cross-tabulate aroma profiles with sales and consumer preference data to obtain a ranking of most-valued sensory traits. Go back to your list of cultivars and start hybridizing for likely winners. It’s the purely phenotypic selection method that worked very well for Luther Burbank in the days before gene sequencing and gas chromatography. This approach would get the program going a lot faster than Roell’s “study the hell out of everything before making a move” strategy. I think he has it totally backwards—sensory analysis should precede chemical analysis.

“Hello Marc-Sven, what’s happening?

We have sort of a problem here. Yeah, you apparently didn’t include sensory analysis in your new cover sheet on the TPS report.

Did you see the memo about this?

Yeah, if you could just go ahead and make sure you do that from now on that would be great. 

And I’ll go ahead and make sure you get another copy of that memo.”

The study discussed here is “Terpenes in Cannabis: Solving the puzzle of how to predict taste and smell,” by Marc-Sven Roell, published in Plant Physiology 184:8-9, 2020.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Smells from Beyond


In a series of pre-Halloween posts a decade ago, I examined ghostly smell stories and poems including examples from the Victorian English novelist Wilkie Collins, the 19th century American writer Bret Harte, the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, and an English novel (“The Uninvited”) that was made into a movie starring Ray Milland.

I was reminded of them this week when I came across a new study: “Perceptual phenomena associated with spontaneous experiences of after-death communication: Analysis of visual, tactile, auditory and olfactory sensations.”

Have I started dabbling in occultism? Not exactly. The paper appears in Explore: The Journal of Science & Healing, published by Elsevier, which claims to address “the scientific principles behind, and applications of, evidence-based healing practices from a wide variety of sources, including conventional, alternative, and cross-cultural medicine.” Further, “It is an interdisciplinary journal that explores the healing arts, consciousness, spirituality, eco-environmental issues, and basic science as all these fields relate to health.”

OK, then!

So who conducted the study? Here’s the batting order:

Marjorie Woollacott, an emeritus professor of physiology whose focus is motor control.

Chris A. Roe, a professor of psychology at the University of Northampton in the UK who is President of the Society for Psychical Research and whose most recent publication is a chapter titled “Clinical parapsychology: The interface between anomalous experiences and psychological wellbeing.”

Callum E. Cooper, a senior lecturer in psychology at Northampton, who holds two doctorates and whose most recent publication is the entry on “Anal Intercourse” for the Encyclopedia of Sex and Sexuality.

David Lorimer, Programme Director of something called the Scientific and Medical Network, and an editor and author of many books including Survival? Death as a Transition; he is interviewed in a recent youtube video.

Evelyn Elsaesser, an independent researcher in Switzerland and author of, among other books, On the other side of life: Exploring the phenomenon of the near-death experience.

So what have they delivered?

The study itself consists of a lengthy 194-item online questionnaire that was filled out by 991 people, mostly women (85%) with a median age of 51 years. The olfactory data appear in Table 6. In response to the question “Did you smell a fragrance characteristic of the deceased which made you think he/she was present?” 28% of respondents said yes. Of these, 60% also said yes to the next question: “Did you feel that the deceased was conveying a message to you by way of this fragrance?”

The authors give us an idea of what smells were reported:

“The fragrances typically included aftershave lotion, a typical body scent, perfume or soap, but many odors were noted in the descriptions, including tobacco, food and flowers.”

Smells were the least common sensory impression (28%) reported by people who experienced ADC. The most frequent were tactile (48%), visual (46%), and auditory (44%). While noting that there is considerable variability in the representation of the individual senses in previous studies of ADC, the authors don’t have much to say about the proportions they found.

For what it’s worth, I would point out that the substantially lower incidence of smells compared to sights and sounds is consistent with what’s been reported for sensory impressions in dreams and hallucinations.

The paper is mildly interesting for the cross-sensory tabulations insofar as they relate to smells in phantosmia, dreams, and hallucinations. Whether there is anything else worth pursuing on the topic of after-death communication is, in my opinion, dubious. Interestingly, the funders of the study are publicity-shy:

Funding: This work was supported by a foundation that wishes to remain anonymous. The funding organization had no influence on the final research design, data collection, analysis, interpretation of data, the writing of the report or the decision to submit the article for publication.

UPDATE May 7, 2021

And right on cuespooky new Netflix movie Things Heard & Seen features among other things a smelly ghost.

The study discussed here is “Perceptual phenomena associatedwith spontaneous experiences of after-death communication: Analysis of visual,tactile, auditory and olfactory sensations,” by Marjorie Woollacott, Chris A. Roe, Callum E. Cooper, David Lorimer, and Evelyn Elsaesser, published online in EXPLORE, February 23, 2021.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Keeping Up with the News

I’ve tracked new scientific findings about the human sense of smell for a long time. Rather than just file them away for my own interest, I posted one-sentence summaries of clinically relevant findings to the Disorders of Odor Perception website at I was doing so on a more or less weekly basis until about a year ago when covid hit the fan and disrupted my routine along with everyone else’s.

Over the course of the year, “regular” publications on smell science were overwhelmed by a flood of papers on covid-related smell loss. I tried to keep up with these for while, but it was simply too much to handle and eventually I stopped updating the site.

Recently, when I decided to resume posting new material to Disorders of Odor Perception, it occurred to me that the web design was hopelessly out of date: the site looked OK on laptops, but was barely legible on phone or tablet. So I redesigned the site to make it “responsive”, i.e., it adapts to the device you view it on and is (hopefully!) much easier to read on mobile devices.

As before, new content appears in three categories: Smell Loss (hyposmia and anosmia); Smell Distortion (parosmia, phantosmia, etc.); and News & Reviews.

I also updated the format of the “new content” emails. They now contain direct links to the original source items—no need to go back to website to find them. This ought to make the emails much more user friendly.

If you are a clinician or patient or just interested in the topic of smell disorders, I encourage you to sign up for the email alerts. It’s a painless way to keep up with new work in the field.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Pardon Me, Do You Have Any Mouse Poupon?

Here’s a tasty new offering from researchers at the Centre des Sciences du Goût et de L’Alimentation in Dijon, France: “Male mice and cows perceive human emotional chemosignals: a preliminary study.”

How do you know if a mouse is perceiving chemosignals of human fear? It poops out more fecal pellets.

How do you know if a cow prefers chemosignals from nonstressed humans? It spends more time smelling the bucket that contains them.

How do you obtain these wondrous human chemosignals? The old cotton pads in the underarms gambit. You get some engineering students to abstain from stinky food and perfume for a few days (major sacrifice—this is France, after all) and wear the pads during a regular class (non-stress) and during an exam (stress).

What can say? I admire the weirdness of the experimental design. I wonder if members of the ethics panel of the French Ministry of Higher Education and Research managed to keep a straight face during the review meeting.

Sidebar: The title of the paper mentions “male mice” and “cows,” when in fact the animals used were male mice and nulliparous female bovines. Shit-kicking American readers would expect “male mice and heifers,” but evidently the heifer vs cow distinction isn’t recognized in the editorial offices of Animal Cognition.

And finally, with apologies to the man from Nantucket:

There once was a heifer from Dijon,
Whose nostrils scientists seized on,
She found it a balm,
When the students smelled calm,
And the researchers gained a citation.

The study discussed here is “Male mice and cows perceive human emotional chemosignals: a preliminary study,” by Alexandra Destrez, Morgane Costes‑Thiré, Anne‑Sophie Viart, Floriane Prost, Bruno Patris and Benoist Schaal, published online in Animal Cognition, April 11, 2021.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Blame it on the Whales

It’s not often that our Google Alert for “higher than normal volumes of mullet breeding” returns a news item, but when it does it’s a doozy. Today’s story is from Cape Town, South Africa or more specifically Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront, billed as “a place where crowds gather to eat, drink, shop, socialize, and admire breathtaking views of Table Mountain.” Apparently a new breathtaking feature is the stench of rotting fish. These have accumulated in the harbor due to HTNVOMB along with a pair of humpback whales who chased a school of mackerel to an oxygen-starved demise in the shallow waters.

Thursday, March 18, 2021



This guy in Brooklyn has jumped onto the non-fungible token craze by selling digital recordings of his own farts.

This is brilliant on so many levels.

While giving Alex Ramírez-Mallis all due credit as a (f)art world innovator, I do have some reservations. Having listened to a few of his audibles, he seems to be—if not a true squeaker—a short-burst specialist. The type Dr. Raymond Stantz might classify as “a focused, non-terminal, repeating phantasm or a class-five full-roaming vapor. A real nasty one, too.”

You can spend your crypto-currency on ARM’s staccato output, or you could wait for someone in the basso profundo category with a more sostenuto style of delivery. It’s all a matter of taste.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

You Better Listen to the Radio


I’ve known Saskia Wilson-Brown since she first began organizing the Institute for Art and Olfaction in Los Angeles almost eight years ago. The IAO is now a thriving center for perfumery training, workshops, seminars, and scent-related events. Saskia’s latest innovation is Perfume on the Radio, a twice-monthly broadcast that is also available in podcast here and from the usual sources (Spotify, iHeartRadio, etc.).

I am one of the guests on Episode 5, dubbed “The Vice Show.” Saskia and I talk about the aromas of cannabis, how strain names get in the way of consumer experience, and the developing parallels between weed and aromatherapy. My segment begins at around minute 16. It’s free and it’s about 10 minutes long.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Coming Soon: A Live Virtual Appearance


The Cannabis Chemistry Subdivision of the American Chemical Society has been incredibly active in organizing symposia and publications on key topics in the cannabis sector. One of their ongoing events is a monthly “journal club” held as a live webinar.

I’ve been invited to give this month’s presentation on March 25 at 11:00 a.m. Pacific Standard Time. My topic is: Cannabis terpenes: Cultivar markers, aroma sources, or active ingredients?

(Yes, I’ll push all three hot buttons in one talk.)

There’s a Q&A session following my presentation, to be moderated by Nigam Arora, PhD. The webinar is free and open to the public. To register for it go to this link.

Hope to see your there!

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Sommeliers Take It on the Nose


Robert Camuto, the Wine Spectator editor who interviewed me about his COVID-19-related smell loss, has a new piece up at the magazine. He surveys the experiences of sommeliers who have had the illness and how the olfactory disturbances have impacted their professional lives.

I thought of Camuto a few days ago when I found a paper in The Laryngoscope by a multi-European group of clinicians including Thomas Hummel and Carl Philpott. The study examined recovery from post-infectious olfactory dysfunction (PIOD) among patients who undertook olfactory training—a regimen formulated by Hummel and others which has shown promise in speeding the return of smell. The new paper, based retrospectively on 153 PIOD patients, finds that the presence of parosmia—altered smell impressions—at the initial visit is, somewhat paradoxically, a marker of better eventual recovery in odor identification and discrimination.

The study discussed here is “Parosmia is associated withrelevant olfactory recovery after olfactory training,” by David T. Liu, Maha Sabha, Michael Damm, Carl Philpott, Anna Oleszkiewicz, Antje Hähner, and Thomas Hummel, published in The Laryngoscope 131:618, 2021. The paper is available for free download at the link.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021



My exploration of the interplay between scent and the other senses began when I ran a sensory psychology research group for Givaudan-Roure fragrances. The company’s perfumers and fragrance evaluators talked about notes and accords using remarkably precise and vivid language. After taking part in smell training sessions, and meetings where we discussed potential fragrance submissions to clients, I began to think that these multisensory metaphors might have a measurable empirical basis. That was the hunch that sparked a research program that established the links between scent and the domains of color and auditory pitch.

I used those results to create practical commercial applications for the company, and later used similar techniques to help my own clients incorporate multisensory alignment in their product development work.

Over the years, cross-modal perception has really taken off as a research topic. The studies have come thick and fast: Does the color of the plate influence your liking of the food? Does the weight of a glass impact the flavor impression of your drink?

While these studies have been done by dozens of labs around the world, by far the most prolific and influential researcher is Charles Spence, a professor in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford. Spence has created a Crossmodal Research Laboratory and spawned a number of very successful students. He has also been generous in citing my earlier work in his papers.

So I was pleasantly surprised to receive an advance copy of his latest book along with an inquiry from his publisher asking me to blurb it. In Sensehacking: How to Use the Power of Your Senses for Happier, Healthier Living, Spence applies the principles of multisensory perception to everyday life—he wants to help people declutter their sensorium in a practical way.

I liked the book well enough to offer a blurb. Lo and behold, not only did the publisher use it, but it made the front cover, beating out blurbs by five other Big Names who were relegated to the back of the dust jacket. </gloat>

“Spence does for the senses what Marie Kondo does for homes.”

Put that in your blurb bong and smoke it.

Sensehacking goes on sale in the USA on March 5. May he sell a million copies.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Culling the Herd

I have far more books than shelf space. I could buy more bookshelves but then the living room would start to look like the library of an English country house and I’m just not in the mood for Victorian clocks and Wedgewood vases.

Unlike the previous FirstNerve Manor, the current house has no attic where I can stow boxes of books. And when it comes to limited basement storage space, wine takes priority.

So today I hauled out box B219: my collection of books by Stephen Jay Gould. Back in the last century I subscribed to Natural History magazine where Gould had a monthly column. These used to appeal to me as a graduate student and post-doc heavily into natural history and evolutionary theory—and the history of science concerning both. It was easier to buy the book (e.g., The Panda’s Thumb) than keep a stack of old magazines around for reference. With his enormous popularity—every collection of essays received a major review in the NYT—I figured the first editions would hold value.

Gould was something of an academic celebrity back then, despite (or perhaps because of) his thinly veiled Marxism and trendy political views. Even as I kept buying his books, I grew weary of his moralizing and his prose, especially the faux folksiness (his whole “just another nerdy baseball fan” persona really grated). I find it puzzling today that I bought so many of his books, especially as I disliked the leading role he and the odious Richard Lewontin played in the disgraceful attacks on Edward O. Wilson and sociobiology. What was I thinking? [Completionism is a frequent co-morbidity to bibliophilia—Ed.]

So this afternoon I cast a gimlet eye over a stack of 15 volumes by Gould. I’d already determined that there is no market for them (mint condition first edition or not). I decided to keep Ontogeny and Phylogeny (1977) because it is a serious treatment of a major topic in evolutionary theory (no baseball references). Ditto The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (2002), even though I’ve never cracked it open. [Has anyone?—Ed.] Finally, I held on to The Mismeasure of Man (1981) because that book got Gould hoist on his own petard.

All the rest? They’re in the trash can and headed for the Larimer County landfill on Tuesday afternoon.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

I'll Get Right on It

Step away from social media for a few weeks and your life becomes less cluttered.

But social media is relentless, like a leaky pipe slowly filling your basement with water.

At this point I don’t want to sign back into LinkedIn unless I’m wearing my hip waders because I’ll be ass deep in “Congratulate Cindy Sue on her work anniversary!” and “Bob Schmo has reposted inspirational thoughts on how to be a team leader” and other flotsam.


Maybe later.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

The Tao of Terpenes


When I moved to Colorado a few years ago I got interested in the aroma of marijuana. I founded a start-up called Headspace Sensory LLC and began a series of consumer research sniff studies. Three of these have been published so far, and they constitute the nucleus of the brand new field of cannabis psychophysics. You can find them here, here, and here

Along the way I’ve met many people and read a lot about the subject. My impression of the scientific and commercial “cannabis space” is that it is a mixed bag. There are some very talented, very focused people doing excellent work in areas like chemical analysis, plant genetics, and product development. On the other hand, there are lots of people whose hot air to solid content ratio tilts rather heavily toward HA. 

One thing that gets the alarm on the FirstNerve bogosity meter bleeping the loudest is the topic of terpenes. Terpenes are a chemical class of volatile molecules and they are responsible in large part for making weed smelly weedy. That much is true. But one doesn’t have to follow the online terpene trail very far to find perfumey punditry of the most egregious kind. [Take pity and refrain from naming names.—Ed.] [Okay, if you insist.]

So I was pleased when the editor of Terpenes and Testing magazine invited me to write a short article on the chemistry and perception of cannabis terpenes. It gave me the chance to describe some fundamental principles of odor perception and how they apply to the bouquet of terpenes found in cannabis flower. One important lesson: the sheer abundance of a given terpene doesn’t tell us much about its contribution to a flower’s overall aroma. 

In the article I also describe my dream of creating a cannabis aroma map on which individual cultivars are arranged according to smell similarity, and my belief that sensory evaluation—sniff testing—has a major role to play in segmenting the cannabis consumer market. 

If you would like to read it, you can download at this link.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Noted in Passing

FirstNerve’s wildly popular but now dormant “I Smell Dead People” feature began with an observation in my book. I noted that stories about the “Body in the Bed”—motel guests complaining of a foul odor in their room which the manager later discovers is due to a corpse hidden beneath the bed—were not urban legends but in fact quite common occurrences. 

Way back in 2009, ISDP covered the case of Anthony Sowell, a Cleveland man accused of killing as many as 11 women and stashing their bodies in the house where he lived. One reason he was able to get away with these crimes was that people who smelled the putrefaction often assumed the smell was coming from a sausage factory next door. You can find all the gory details here.

So why bring up Anthony Sowell now? Because the bastard has just died peacefully (unlike his victims) in an Ohio prison hospital. 

He will not be missed.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

#5 Combination Plate


There’s a entertaining piece by Chris Vanjonack in Westword about Denver’s legendary Casa Bonita restaurant. Yes, the place featured in the classic South Park episode is, in fact, an actual and much-loved kitsch-classic Mexican restaurant. It’s been around since 1974 and has outlived its sibling locations in Tulsa, Fort Worth, Little Rock, and Oklahoma City. Eric Cartman wasn’t the first kid to become delirious with joy at the prospect of attending a friend’s birthday party at Casa Bonita—it’s been a dining destination for generations of Colorado kids. The 2003 South Park episode brought a surge of renewed traffic to the place, but like so many other restaurants in the state, it may have fallen victim to government-inflicted economic destruction of COVID-19 lockdowns. 

While we’re on the subject of Mexican food [Awk segue—Ed.] there’s something that’s been bothering me—and I wonder whether I’m alone on this. The last can of refried beans I warmed up was . . . disappointing. Instead of melting into a nice, bubbling, spoonable consistency in the pan, they remained a semi-solid mass of spackle-like stiffness. Naturally I figured I’d bought the vegetarian version by mistake. But no—it was Rosarita brand Traditional Refried Beans. And I recalled a similar experience with the last couple of cans of my usual brand: Old El Paso Traditional Refried Beans. A little research shows I’m not the only one noticing a difference. 

Check out the current consumer ratings on the brand’s home page: 

Twenty-nine of thirty reviewers give Old El Paso’s TRB a one-star rating. And the comments are merciless. There appears to have been a recent change in the recipe. 

Hmmm. I wonder if Old El Paso decided to reduce the amount of lard? Lard is probably the ingredient that gives refried beans their melty quality, and produces the tasty puddle next to the rice on your restaurant combo platter. It’s out of fashion now among the high-minded nutrition nannies. Did the company cave? Inquiring minds want to know.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Platitudes R Us

When I was razzing IFF’s Mr. Big Andreas Fibig for his empty platitudes, I said they sounded like “the output of a Random Mission Statement Generator.” Well guess what I discovered today? An online service called Name My Think Tank that not only generates a name for your think tank, it creates a logo and a mission statement. Give it a try!

With a little tweaking to the code, someone ought to be able to come up with Rebrand My Flavor & Fragrance Company. It could save the industry a ton in consultant’s fees.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Starting the Transformative Journey


Take a moment to savor a heaping spoonful of non-nutritive verbiage served up yesterday by the Chairman and CEO of a major company: 

“Today we start a transformative journey together to become a center of innovation for our customers. Our leadership team believes passionately in the importance and benefit of being a purpose-driven enterprise. We will lead not simply by relying on an unmatched portfolio and flawless execution, but by quickly unlocking new innovations as we tap into our shared passion for pairing science and creativity to deliver for our customers. We are creating an agile, empowered and innovative business that provides exceptional service and delivers on our commitment to be an essential partner for our customers.”

Like that? There’s more. 

“Critical to our success is our ability to foster an execution culture and embed values that support our promises to our people, customers, consumers and our communities. To that end, we have updated our cultural principles to ensure we have the foundation in place to empower our people to deliver on our commitments.” 

Is this heap of platitudinous horseshit the output of a Random Mission Statement Generator? Nuh-uh. It was delivered by Andreas Fibig, the Chairman and CEO of International Flavors & Fragrances. That’s right—this guy runs one of the world’s largest players in the refined, romantic, glamorous world of perfumery and he makes his company sound . . . bland and colorless. Gavin Belson he’s not. 

Exit question: What is an “execution culture”? Is that like Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge? North Korea today? Or is it the new B-school buzz phrase for “we get the job done”?

UPDATE February 3, 2021


“BRAWNDO® – It’s got what plants crave!”

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Another “New York Death”?

Hey, I’m as big a fan of Febreze® as the next guy, but I think it’s a tall order for that product to handle the smell of human decomposition. This case reported by the New York Post will ring a bell with fans of FirstNerve’s long-standing “I Smell Dead People” feature which, if memory serves, recorded instances of people attempting to hide the smell of rotting corpses with scented candles and air fresheners.

Cops believe the actor who was found dead with his mom’s body in Chelsea lived with her decomposing corpse for several days before he also passed away — and that he used Febreze to mask the odor, law-enforcement sources said Sunday.

ISDP fans will note that this is not a bona fide case of “I Smell Dead People” because the remains of the unfortunate Mr. Wedell and his mother were not discovered by smell, but via a police wellness check requested by concerned relatives. 

Enjoy the screenshot of the Post story in case a copy editor wakes up and notices the product name was misspelled in the headline.

Friday, January 29, 2021

The Shape of Stinks to Come: The Green Revolution Devours Boulder County’s Open Space


I’ve written here several times about composting, the high-minded effort to turn waste into re-usable mulch. When it comes to setting up large-scale composting operations, these efforts tend to follow a familiar sad sequence. The initial proposal assures the public that the facility will be run according to the latest best practices and result in minimal odor, if any. Once the operation gets underway, nearby residents start to notice objectionable smells. The facility may deny being the source; there may be a back-and-forth as the town tries to document the stink and locate its origin. The facility may own up to being the source, and offer assurances that the smell is a mere hiccup that will disappear once the operation is fully optimized. When the smell and local objections continue, the town hires consultants who recommend installing some sort of odor remediation system. The result: the entire project comes in heavily over budget and leaves a lot of ill will in its wake. 

A common feature of these episodes is a failure to take potential odor issues seriously from the very start of the project. Why does this happen? I think it’s because proponents of large-scale composting don’t anticipate issues of scale. 

Home composting enthusiasts maintain little heaps of banana peels, apple cores, and lawn clippings in their backyards. These produce a small amount of innocuous odor. So what’s the problem in just adding everyone’s little heap to a town compost pile? 

The problem is that the amount of biomass in a commercial or municipal composting facility is exponentially larger than a backyard heap, and that the resulting odor production will also be exponentially larger. Massive odor generation is a certainty—it’s an operational issue that ought to be dealt with in detail at the preliminary engineering stage. It is not enough for planners and proponents to blithely claim that proper “turning over” and aeration of the pile will minimize odor. 

Now comes a story out of Longmont, Colorado, roughly 35 miles south of FirstNerve headquarters. Three residents have filed a lawsuit against a proposed composting facility—one that hasn’t even been built. Among other things, the lawsuit anticipates loss of property values should the facility-to-be emit “noxious odors.” Is this simply a case of NIMBYism or is there something more to it? 

What is at issue is a proposal by Boulder County to build the facility on ~40 acres of land that was purchased, with voter approval, as preserved open space with a perpetual conservation easement. By law, the county’s open space “can be used solely for passive recreation, agriculture or environmental preservation purposes.” But that’s no problem for the three county commissioners. By using an obscure real estate doctrine and a recent land purchase they claim to have extinguished the conservation easement, giving themselves the ability to build a compost facility on the land. The commissioners pushed their plan through with a minimum of public notice. 

The 235-page plan is a classic instance of blithe disregard for potential odor issues. It mentions odor only four times:

(1) In the architect’s narrative under “Buildings”, it states that waste will be delivered to a 17,590 square foot “tipping building”: “This building is a fully enclosed, fully contained component of the operation that will minimize odors, provide visual screening, and prevent any leaching of feedstock liquids into the surrounding soil.” 

(2) In the “Operations” section under “Odor control”: “The CASP [“covered aerated static pile”] bunkers have been shown to reduce odors by 90-95% over conventional open pile windrow systems.” 

(3) In the “Proposed Conditions” section under “landscaping: “Newly landscaped areas are strategically located for visual screening and to reduce sound and odor impacts of the facility.” 

(4) And on page 12: “The existing site border of trees creates a natural setback from the road and would provide visual and odor screening.” 

The idea that a line of trees and other landscaping features will reduce and screen odors is laughable. The tipping building may indeed contain odors—as long as the doors are never opened. And once the dumped waste is moved out of the building for composting, the odor issue pops right back up. Finally, even assuming that the claim about CASP bunkers is correct, that residual 5 to 10% of odors may still reach obnoxious levels, especially since the county intends to process “125 million pounds of animal manure, sewage sludge and food waste per year.” 

Yes, that’s right: this is not just a food waste compost pile. It includes massive amounts of animal manure and sewage sludge (i.e., human manure). 

The city of Boulder gives Berkeley, California a run for its money when it comes to progressive politics. Boulder County has a “Zero Waste Action Plan” that aims for a goal of zero waste by 2025. The three county commissioners (all Democrats) seem hell-bent on getting there, even if it means overriding the declared intent of county residents. Will three residents be able to stop the onrushing tide of sludge? Stay tuned. You can track their battle here.

UPDATE March 22, 2021

The Boulder County commissioners caved and will no longer consider placing a composting facility on the open space in question. The county has filed motions to dismiss lawsuits by neighboring property owners. Story here.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Fragrance Creators Association Stands in Proud Solidarity with Glorious Dear Leader!


There are formal congratulations to a new administration and there are self-serving suck-ups. But the Fragrance Creators Association takes it to a whole new level: it’s full Juche Spirit. All that’s missing is the rhythmic clapping. 

Check it out:

WASHINGTON, DC—Fragrance Creators Association issued a statement today from President & CEO Farah K. Ahmed on the inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden and Vice President Kamala D. Harris:

“Fragrance Creators Association (Fragrance Creators) congratulates President Joseph R. Biden and Vice President Kamala D. Harris on this historic day of their inauguration. The association looks forward to working together to find solutions that empower the fragrance industry’s ability to advance key Administration priorities, including promoting sustainability, economic growth, and public health and wellness—especially during COVID-19—while also addressing important social causes of our time. 

Fragrance Creators applauds President Biden’s track record of reaching across the aisle to get things done for the American people. The association also recognizes the pressing need for our country and its leaders to come together in unity and shared values, and is committed to doing its part. We stand ready to leverage the bipartisan Congressional Fragrance Caucus, which was established in 2018 to bring together policymakers to develop policies that champion sound science and are good for people, perfume, and the planet. 

For our diverse, women-led team, today also marks a meaningful and historic milestone, as we welcome the first Black and Indian-American woman to serve as Vice President. We are inspired by Vice President Harris and the individuals who make up the most diverse Administration in our nation’s history. We relish the opportunity to build new relationships as we boldly break new ground to support our members’ ongoing leadership in responsible industry stewardship. 

For Fragrance Creators members, being good stewards means showing up and doing what’s right. The fragrance industry contributes over $22.4 billion to the U.S. economy, invests heavily in sustainable R&D and innovation, and is a strong driver of more than 200,000 well-paying jobs. The association’s diverse membership of 60 member companies reflects the dynamic fragrance value chain—from small, family-owned businesses to multinational corporations. On behalf of its member companies, Fragrance Creators remains committed to supporting President Biden and Vice President Harris and working with the 117th Congress to accelerate a brighter future for our country.” 


P.S. Dear Comrade Ahmed, never go full Juche.

P.P.S. The FCA sure is big on diversity: our diverse, women-led team, the most diverse Administration in our nation’s history, “the association’s diverse membership.So take a look at the organization's current board of directors, and . . . wallow in all the diversity.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

The Road to Recovery

I was interviewed last week by Robert Camuto, an editor at Wine Spectator who lost his sense of smell after a recent bout with COVID-19. I suggested that he try smell training to assist his recovery of function. You can read about his experience here in his new column.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

A Note on Free Speech and Social Media


In addition to returning to FirstNerve, I’ve been re-evaluating my participation in social media. I’m a big believer in free speech and in freedom from being tracked and monetized by tech monopolies and their billionaire owners. So I’ve made a few changes in my life.

First off, I shut down my @scienceofscent and @scentofweed Twitter accounts. I will not be part of a platform where Jack Dorsey and his minions can arbitrarily shut down people, organizations, and viewpoints that they dislike. 

My disenchantment with Twitter had been growing for years. That’s why in August 2016 joined GAB as @Avery. Although I found a few people to follow, it wasn’t easy to get much traction there in the early days. Few of the big-name bloggers and pundits had joined, and those who had didn’t post much. This has changed dramatically in the past few months. There is a steady stream of big-name refugees from twitter and a ton of new subscribers. GAB has increased its server capacity big time and the user experience and speed are now excellent. I encourage you to join. 

Of course, I also had an account at Parler before it was thrown off the internet by Amazon Web Services. (“If you don’t like Twitter, go make your own version.” OK, they did. “If we won’t host you on our servers, go make your own.” OK, they’re trying to do that.) 

What about the journalists, pundits, and commentators I used to follow on Twitter? Simple: I subscribe to their email notifications directly or I sign up to follow them on Substack. Substack is an interesting model—it’s a free blogging platform that also allows you to monetize some or all of your content. In other words, you can offer some content for free and reserve other content for subscribers who pay a monthly subscription to get it. This might be a way to restore the independent blogging voices that were so great in the early years of this century. Stay tuned. 

I’ve also grown weary of Google. (Yes, I know it owns Blogger and therefore enables FirstNerve.) Over the past year or so the results returned by its search engine have become . . . less useful. The first page or two of results are from a limited group of news providers and websites. Image searches are biased to stock photo companies. (Do they pay for placement?) This is not the freewheeling Google search of old—it feels rigged. Plus, Google tracks and monetizes the search histories of everyone who uses the service. Who wants that? My solution is to use DuckDuckGo for searches: it works well and it doesn’t track you.  

Then there’s the matter of Gmail. I’ve had a “throw away” account there for years. That means Google bots finger through my correspondence looking for trends the company can monetize (never mind sorting my mail into categories whether I want it to or not). When the auto dealership reminds me it’s time for an oil change, Google knows my identity, the dealer’s identity, and the make and model of my car. The hell with that. I’ve now switched all those threads to my privately hosted email. 

Google also owns YouTube where it has been behaving badly—demonetizing and banning people, organizations, and views that it would rather not hear from. The good news is that there is now an alternative: It is clean, easy to use, and easy to monetize (if that’s your thing). I’m signed up as AveryGilbert, and am already seeing the service being populated by journalists and videographers with large following. Have a look and join in! 

Then there’s the other distasteful Silicon Valley tech oligarchy—Apple. The Messages on my iPhone are encrypted only went sent to other iPhone users; those exchanged with non-iPhones (the texts in the green bubbles) are not. So for peace of mind I’ve signed up with Signal, a service that provides end-to-end encryption of all your texts, voice calls, and video chats. It’s super-intuitive and fast. What’s not to like? Go get it. 

Bottom line: I sense a coming re-alignment in social media. The dominance of today’s tech oligarchy is beginning to slip. They could become tomorrow’s dinosaurs. It’s happened before (MySpace, anyone?). And high-tech is all about being “disruptive”, is it not?