Links to the original articles on "NZZ Folio" are included in each post. Source: NZZ Folio.

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September 1, 2008

"Duftnote -- Two stinks" By Luca Turin

"Duftnote -- Two stinks" By Luca Turin

The Stazione Zoologica in Naples is one of my favorite places on earth. A solid, gracious 1872 building nestled among the trees of the seafront gardens in the heart of town, it looks like a provincial railway station transported by angels to a place with no rails. It was the first of its kind, imitated the world over to provide an excuse for scientists to work through the holidays. It is known locally as the Aquarium and houses local fauna bathed in natural light, unlike the garish nightclub for fish up the coast in Monaco.

I fell in love with it in 1974, when I went there for a few weeks as a very junior assistant to the great John Z Young. My job was to train octopus to do complex tasks, like recognize shapes dangled in their aquaria or count the grooves in perspex balls. The intelligence of octopus is not widely appreciated, partly because they have little chance to display it when diced in a seafood salad, partly because we tend to think of invertebrates as lower forms of life. But think they do, astonishingly well when in pristine shape. Professor Young used to take out chunks of their brains to figure out which did what. Even when severely damaged, the hologram inside their heads was still readable and they performed valiantly, though more slowly, in all the tests. Sometimes one of these poor creatures would die, and take revenge on us (my other job was to clean the tanks) by producing the most prodigiously bad smell in the world, a stench so revoltingly vile that it would keep us retching for minutes afterwards.

Years later I came back, this time given a little lab to play in, shared with two distinguished foreign scientists. The octopus were gone. We were unpacking our equipment when the Director of the station came to greet us. One of us asked where the store of clean seawater was to be found. We did not know this, but the Stazione had at great expense installed two pipes out to sea to pump it in from the depths. Seawater was now on tap, and with a proud flourish and a smile the director opened one of the taps, which had never been used. For an interminable minute, out hissed and spluttered a mile-long slug of pestilential gas interspersed with random bits of brown gunk, filling the room with a very familiar smell. By the time clear water came, we were all on the terrace retching. There must have been laughter in octopus heaven.

Luca Turin ist Forschungsleiter bei Flexitral Inc.; er lebt in London.