You Smell: The Mysterious Science of Scent

The sense of smell is a mystery—and the human sense of smell is a particularly inscrutable one. Only in the last 25 years have scientists identified the molecules in our noses responsible for detecting odors, and since then, the unexpected discovery of a new family of olfactory detection molecules has complicated the story. When the complexities of the human brain, human motivation, and human variation are added to the mix, the question of what smells do to and for us becomes even more perplexing—and intriguing.

Essayist and physician Lewis Thomas wrote that understanding the sense of smell “may not seem a profound enough problem to dominate all the life sciences, but it contains, piece by piece, all the mysteries.” Scientists from all fields are coming together to solve these mysteries of olfaction, and their investigations are starting to reveal that the sense of smell can move us in ways that we aren’t even always aware. While it’s clear that scientists are far from closing the case on smell, it is also becoming increasingly obvious that the power of the human nose is nothing to sniff at.

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Rachel Becker

About Rachel Becker

Rachel is a Boston transplant originally from the Bay Area, California. Her love for science started during college at Stanford University with archaeology, anthropology, and osteology, and grew to include infectious diseases, epidemiology, and finally immunology. Her undergraduate thesis investigations into a novel therapeutic pathway for treating multiple sclerosis inspired Rachel to settle on neuroimmunology for her master's degree research at Harvard, where she studied how the maternal immune environment shapes fetal neurodevelopment. After years of trying to restrict herself to just one -ology, Rachel realized that she didn't have to: she loves that being a science writer means being able to indulge all of her scientific curiosities. In her free time, Rachel can be found outside, reading, or at the gym lifting things up and putting them down. Thesis: You Smell: The Mysterious Science of Scent