Tag Archives: white smell

The smell organ as illustrated by Frank R. Paul in the June 1922 issue of Science and Invention.

Music for the nose: an olfactory organ

The smell organ as illustrated by Frank R. Paul in the June 1922 issue of Science and Invention.

The smell organ as illustrated by Frank R. Paul in the June 1922 issue of Science and Invention.

There’s a whole science behind scents. The perfume industry is worth billions and scientists all over the world, mostly in corporate laboratories, work each day to find the perfect balance between odors. In many respects, perfumery is regarded as an art of its own, and some have even drawn comparisons to music.

Dr. Septimus Piesse, a French chemist and perfumer who wrote the 1857 book The Art of Perfumery, was famous in his time for his theories that loosely compared music and how certain smells work together.

Just like an arrangement of musical notes fly together to create a spectacle for the ears, so can an array of various scents blend to enlighten the nose. Oppositely, when music goes wrong and leads to dissonance, so can some smells go horribly wrong together.

With this in mind, a 1922 issue of the magazine  Science and Invention presented a concept instrument meant for the nose, not for the ears.

The authors envisioned a “smell organ” where the artist would shoot scents instead of musical notes and dazzle his audience. The smell organ even has a whole theory behind it, as the authors envisioned  “heavier” odors assigned to lower notes, and “sharper” odors assigned to higher notes. The authors even illustrated notes that would correspond to which fragrances.

Small organ keys

The article reads:

“Of course, the combination of these odors will create a smell entirely different from any of the individual qualities of the various perfumes and it is necessary that, in the soft, dreamy compositions, the odors blend harmoniously. Discords will have a decidedly unpleasant effect but inasmuch as the composers did not dwell upon discords to any great extent, the audience will be saved the rather unusual embarrassment of smelling disagreeable combination. Some music, would perhaps have to be changed and the odors carefully graduated so that in the smells wafted over the audience no particular perfume will predominate, except when the loud pedal, or rather, in these smell organs, the strong odor pedal is trod upon.”

“It is, therefore, up to the perfumer to combine the mixtures in much the same way as an artist blends colors, or as a good florist makes up his bouquet. If it is desirable to insert a little contrast into the bouquet, the appropriate blossoms or grasses are used, and so the perfumer, likewise would have to employ the proper aromas.”

If you think a bit about it, it sounds like a brilliant idea. Imagine being in the front row of the concert hall where the olfactory organ concert is swinging away. It wouldn’t be too exciting, but if joined with images or music, preferably both, uplifting sensations might touch you.

A concert could explore the four seasons with all the odors that come with each or the story of a journey at sea told through smell. Avant-garde artists would surely throw the most peculiar odor side-shows.

Would such an instrument be possible? Well, unlike musical notes which are actually vibrations, smell doesn’t dissipate nearly as quickly. The range of emotions that one can touch over a period of time is thus very limited in the case of a smelling organ. Maybe by using an intelligent, localized venting system that can’t be felt by the audience would make such a feat possible.

 

 

The position of the 86 molecules within two maps of olfactory stimulus space. Map A is based on the way that we perceive odors (perceptual space) map B is based on the chemical structures of the molecules (physicochemical space). (c) Weizmann Institute

White smell: the neutral fragrance discovered by scientists

You’ve heard about white color and white noise, but know there’s a new neutral signal that balances the senses, the sens of smell to be more exact – white smell! Scientists at the Weizmann Institute have shown that white odor indeed exists, although it can’t be found in nature, after they created a mixture of various pure scents to convey the perception of olfactory neutrality.

White light is produced when an assortment of different wave frequencies meet, similarly for white noise as well as the distinct hum is produced by a combination of sound frequencies. For these to occur two fundamental conditions needs to be met: all the frequencies need to be of the exact same intensity and need to travel within a perceptual space – the visible spectrum for white light and the audible range for white noise.

The position of the 86 molecules within two maps of olfactory stimulus space. Map A is based on the way that we perceive odors (perceptual space) map B is based on the chemical structures of the molecules (physicochemical space). (c) Weizmann Institute

The position of the 86 molecules within two maps of olfactory stimulus space. Map A is based on the way that we perceive odors (perceptual space) map B is based on the chemical structures of the molecules (physicochemical space). (c) Weizmann Institute

This latter condition is very difficult to asses for our other senses, like smell. Could a white smell exist? This is  a question that has been puzzling scientists for a while and, until very recently, remained unanswered. Until, that is, a research team from the Neurobiology Department, led by research student Tali Weiss and Dr. Kobi Snitz, and supervised by Prof. Noam Sobel, took the challenge and successfully produced a white smell.

The scientists made their peculiar odor by mixing up to thirty different odors, from  86 different pure scents that represent a wide range of the kinds of things that we can smell (smell map), which were diluted in order to get the same intensity out of every odor. The human nose can distinguish thousands of sent molecules from flowery to putrid, however its dimensional spectrum is far from being mapped out neatly, as such a rather complicate maneuver was attempted.

The scientists created various blends that were presented in pairs to 150 volunteers or “professional noses”, and compared against a list of 146 different odor descriptions like “fruity” “etherish” “decayed” or “seasoning for meat”. It was found that the more different molecules were paired into mixtures, the bigger the chance that they would be rated as similar. Finally, the scientists found that blends that each contained 30 different odors or more were thought to be almost identical. It’s rather hopeless to describe white smell, because it doesn’t really smell like anything. This is incredibly confusing, and the participants in this study understandably did not know how to explain the scent.

“On the one hand,” says Sobel, “The findings expand the concept of ‘white’ beyond the familiar sight and sound. On the other, they touch on the most basic principles underlying our sense of smell, and these raise some issues with the conventional wisdom on the subject.”

White light equally activates the three color receptors of the eye – red, green and blue. Despite these new findings, the full extent of olfactory space remains unknown, but still it warrants a rephrasing of the common definition for the sense of smell. Rather than a sensor that detects individual molecules, our smell systems perceive whole scents.

The findings were reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

source: Weizmann Institute via Scientific American