Vibration theory of smell makes a comeback


Luca Turin's vibrational theory was largely ignored until now.

Fifteen years ago Luca Turin, now in biophysics department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, first hypothesized that primary smell perception occurs via electron tunneling in the olfactory nerves. His theory challenged the existing idea that humans detect odors according to the shape of molecules. Understanding Turin’s theory requires expertise in several disciplines of science-namely biology, chemistry and physics. Because of these silos within science the theory was largely ignored by all disciplines, according the Chandler Burr, a journalist who wrote a popular book about it called “The Emperor of Scent”.

A study supports the theory, according to physicists presenting their data at the recent American Physical Society meeting in Dallas, Texas. The idea is that an electron on one part of a protein may move and then arrive at another part lacking a quantum of vibrational energy, according to Andrew Horsfield of Imperial College London. This loss of quantum energy by electrons may explain how we detect minute differences between odors. It also supports Turin’s theory.

Some of the most brilliant advances in science have been achieved only when scientists cross disciplines. For example, James Watson and Francis Crick cracked the shape of the DNA molecule by looking at the problem from multiple points of view that included biology, chemistry, physics and the budding field of computer science.

Barriers to crossing disciplines within science are high. Scientists on the academic track face a continual battle to publish or perish, with jobs and tenure statues riding on citations. Crossing into a new field in an early stage of an academic career can mean not winning tenure. Crossing over later can mean loss of grant money or colleagues. It can also be difficult to start a new research group.

The irony is that the tenure system was designed to allows brilliant minds intellectual freedom. Turin was not tenured and has had to jump from job to job misunderstood by most of his colleagues, but in the process Turin may have developed what may yet turn out to be one of the most insightful scientific theories of our time.

Update – I contacted Luca Turin for comment, and he replied on July 11, 2011 by email, “I have gone back to basic science and am no longer involved with fragrance.”

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