Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Play It Again


The Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California is hosting yet another blooming corpse flower. Can you say “overkill”? This is their twelfth one.

Naturally they are livestreaming the blessed event on their u-tube channel. When I last checked it had 59 viewers. They have not enabled comments which makes it even more joyless than usual.

It’s time for someone to create livestream corpse flower commentary, just like the gamers do. I think The Ocho’s Cotton McKnight and his sidekick Pepper Brooks could be the right team:

Cotton: Wow, that makes 3 millimeters in the last hour alone.

Pepper: That’s right Cotton. It’s a towering erection that just won’t stop.

Cotton: And we’re getting wind now of a smell . . . a distinctive odor that resembles day-old roadkill.

Pepper: That’s what the bloaty stage is all about, Cotton. Pretty soon we’ll need barf bags.

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.