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Who's talking with the nose? by Katia Elkaim



"Our language is worthless when it comes to describing smells." - Patrick Süskind, Le Parfum.


The first smell that struck me this morning was the soft, round, slightly milky smell of my puppy who came to wake me up with her kisses. This scent instantly induced a protective instinct in me and the desire to dip my face into the little fur. Then I thought back to my old Bernese Mountain Dog who used to do the same with his gutter breath and my repulsion, even though he was the most affectionate dog in the world.


Smell has always played a major role in my perception of the world; sniffing any object before using it, hating highly-scented places, and running away from public toilets has always been part of my daily life.


One day I lost my sense of smell when I had sinusitis and, miraculously, my mind suddenly became soothed, as if, deprived of odors, it could partially rest. This respite only lasted a while, until I realized that I no longer smelled flowers either, nor my children, nor the emotion of a companion.


Without smelling, I no longer felt anything.


So, imagine my interest when I heard about the Odeuropa project this morning. Funded to the tune of 2.8 million euros, this initiative aims to reproduce smells using artificial intelligence and to preserve them as cultural heritage for future generations.


Chemists and perfumers will recreate, thanks to indications found in historical texts or paintings, smells characteristic of certain periods, such as the stench of cities caused by the industrial revolution.


The idea is to set up a museum of smells that will allow its visitors to relive a historical event, such as the Battle of Waterloo.


But how is this possible? A brief scientific summary: At the origin of all olfactory perception, there is a molecule. This molecule penetrates our nose, where the eyelashes of neurons are responsible for capturing them, hence the importance of not putting one's finger in there too often.


Smells are assimilated by 400 receptors present in the neurons located at the bottom of the nasal cavity. Each of these receptors can recognize several molecules, and one molecule can activate several receptors. The combinations are therefore almost infinite.


The ‘deco