Turin suggests that there are only five atoms that make up almost everything we will ever smell and that there are two competing theories that explain how the nose works. The one that he mentally rejected when he first heard it, he operationalized and now uses in the perfume and scent based industries. Watch the explanation of how he reformulated his thinking and changed careers.

Why you should listen:

Biophysicist Luca Turin studies the science of smell. He’s a leading proponent of the vibrational theory of smell — the idea that when our noses pick up a scent, we’re reacting to the vibrational properties of the molecule we’re smelling. (This is in opposition to the shape theory of smell, which imagines smelly molecules fitting into conveniently shaped receptors in our noses.)

His work on olfactory reception and the prediction of what a particular molecule will smell like has led to an interesting line of work: designing new fragrances and flavor molecules, as part of the firm Flexitral, where he is CTO. Coming up, he’ll be part of a team in Biomedical Engineering at MIT, headed by Professor Shuguang Zhang, to develop an artificial nose made with natural receptors as part of DARPA‘s just-launched RealNose program.

Who is he:

After leaving the CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique, in France), Turin first held a visiting research position at the National Institutes of Health in North Carolina[17] before moving back to London, where he became a lecturer in biophysics at University College London. In 2001 Turin was hired as CTO of start-up company Flexitral, based in Chantilly, Virginia, to pursue rational odorant design based on his theories. In April 2010 he described this role in the past tense,[18] and the company’s domain name appears to have been surrendered.[19]

In 2010, Turin was based at MIT, working on a project to develop an electronic nose related in part on his theories, financed by DARPA.[18] In 2014 he moved to the Institute of Theoretical Physics [3] at Ulm University where he is currently a Visiting Professor.


  1. What are the five different atoms that make up everything we smell?
  1. Describe the two different theories of the sensation of scent?
  1. Turin describes two molecules, one is cis-3-hexene-i-ol and the other is cis-3- hexane-1-thiol. What is the difference in there scents?
  1. To support the vibration theory of scent recognition, Turin went looking for a molecule that had a similar vibration chord to H-S. He had difficulty getting a sample for a lab test because the compound he wished to test was Borane which is a ­­­­_____________.
  1. Two researchers at Ford Motor Company were able to design and build a spectroscope that was essentially nano scale. This development was important because__________.
  1. Turin describes three attitudes toward science, “You’re right, but I don’t know why; you’re right, and I don’t care why, as long as you get results; and You’re wrong and eventually I will prove you wrong”. Which idea do you find yourself holding in daily life? Explain why you have that attitude to someone.

The science of scent with Luca Turin


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