Take a whiff of this book

Review of What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life
by Avery Gilbert

(Crown, $23.95, 304 pages, July, 2008)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz
(Copyright 2008, Alfred B. Bortz)

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    If you enjoy this review of What The Nose Knows, you will probably also enjoy the Science Shelf review of Jacobson’s Organ and the Remarkable Sense of Smell by Lyall Watson.

    A rose is a rose is a rose.
    You can’t fool a perfumer’s nose.
    That’s why fortunes are spent
    On the science of scent.
    It’s olfactory gold, Heaven knows.

    Everybody smells, but some people smell better than others.

    I’ve never met psychologist Avery Gilbert. But after reading his new book, What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life, I’m sure he smells a lot better than I do–in both senses of the word.

    That’s because Mr. Gilbert smells for a living. He is both an expert in the science of human olfaction and an entrepreneur at the forefront of commercial innovation in the fragrance industry.

    This book satisfies my scientific side with classification schemes for organic compounds, both fragrant and flagrant, and descriptions of techniques for measuring human olfactory response.

    But it is even more pleasing to the side of me that savors “a good read.” Mr. Gilbert is clearly a student of history, culture, and literature. He links past events, human interactions, and literary works with aromas, fragrances, scents, smells, odors, stinks, and stenches. With connections to literary giants like Emily Dickinson, Marcel Proust, Henry Adams, William Faulkner, and Salman Rushdie; cinematic pioneers like Mike Todd and John Waters; and cultural icons like Helen Keller and Andy Warhol, the book has touchstones that suit almost any reader’s taste.

    Each chapter brings stories, insights, and more than a few chuckles. The book opens with the challenge of classifying odors and measuring their strength. It draws readers in with wines, flowers, and perfumes, which “occupy the sunny heights of the smellscape.” But then the author lowers the boom.

    “Beyond lies the Dark Side, a swampland reeking of burnt rubber, rotten eggs, and the silent but deadly guy on the No. 33 bus. Few people aspire to study stench–there are no maestros of malodor. And yet, if we are truly to understand the sense of smell, we must account for the whole of it.”

    With that, I was prepared to follow the author anywhere, even if the mental images he was about to create would make me gag. More often, as it turned out, he made me smile instead.

    Succeeding chapters include discussions of “The Molecules That Matter”; the difference between normal smellers, quirky smellers, and prodigies of aroma; olfactory illusions and imagination; the difference between tasting and smelling and its evolutionary consequences; the psychological effects of smell; and the technology of producing odors and aromas.

    The most potent of these is “The Malevolence of Malodor.” It begins by examining the syndrome known as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity or Idiopathic Environmental Intolerance. The verdict: the symptoms are real but psychosomatic. “The psychogenic hypothesis doesn’t sit well with some IEI patients…. [T]hey resent any suggestion that… implies their suffering isn’t real. The good news for them, if they will only hear it, is that the psychogenic hypothesis points to a treatment.”

    Better news for most readers, even those with IEI, is that the most amusing section of the chapter lies ahead: “I Smell Dead People.” Those with a distaste for dark humor would be well advised to skip ahead to the chapter about Hollywood’s brief venture into Smell-O-Vision and AromaRama.

    The book is full of surprising revelations about the human sense of smell, which most of us presume to be far inferior to that of other creatures. But recent research indicates we are on a par with other primates and even, in some circumstances, with dogs. It describes a human bloodhound study in which blindfolded and ear-plugged people were able to follow a scent trail on their hands and knees. And some participants improved with practice.

    It closes with a highly speculative look into “Our Olfactory Destiny,” including both artificial noses and the selective modification of human nasal perception. “Suppose the inhaled virus particles contained all the odor receptors a dog has and you haven’t…. The experience might be disconcerting at first, like getting new contact lenses.”

    Some readers might find the mere thought of having a canine sense of smell off-putting. But it makes “scents” that someone with a highly trained nose like Mr. Gilbert’s would want to be first in line to try it.

    Fred Bortz, an author of 17 science books for young readers, has been sniffing out good nonfiction to review since 1997.

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