"The Last Duftnote" By Luca Turin
This, friends, will be my last Duftnote. Actors want to direct, artists want to run the Ministry of Culture, dancers want to be choreographers, and I want to write about something other than smell. But before I go, I give you the Duftnote of 2030:
IFRA is over. Now that we can stimulate olfactory cells directly with light, there’s no need for chemicals. At least, there hasn't been since 2013, when a group at the Media Lab (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, my current place of work) successfully replicated a convincing smell of bacon by shining light pulses at three different wavelengths.
Three years later the technology was sufficiently advanced that perfumers were fooled about whether they were smelling rose oil or light. MIT Chemistry students were among the first to use the technology to identify and remember molecules by associating them with tunes. My son at age 10 smelled wintergreen in a cough drop and said, “Smoke and mint.” When he and his musically-minded sister arrived at MIT, they soon figured out the smoke and mint chords and learned to play them at different speeds—it turns out arpeggiato is best—until they got wintergreen.
In 2019 at age 20 my son finished a degree in Optogenetic Engineering, while his sister’s third-year assignment at Juilliard was a 3-minute smell piece in which she starts out with a huge cluster chord that smells like wet dog and and one by one removes all the bad notes, ending with Jicky played pianissimo.
To smell a perfume these days, all you do is spray a solution containing about 200 different harmless viruses up your nose. Each virus infects a different type of olfactory receptor and instructs it to make a particular protein, which pumps electric charge across the membrane when exposed to light of a particular color. After about 18 to 24 hours, the proteins are in place.
You insert a small fiber optic into your nostril. It is connected to a small machine containing a dozen tunable lasers, which in turn is connected to your laptop and can read a variety of formats like .olf, .noz and .mp7. (Not familiar with them? You haven’t been paying attention.)
I bought one of the early prototype machines and spent several months just going up and down the scale of molecular vibrations and endlessly playing Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” (the second chord smells of lavender soap) on an iPad MIDI keyboard. That was a while ago. Now of course ITunes has a smellable books section, and you can visit the Osmothèque remotely.
But the best things are completely new: the strange, stately harmonies of smell are now explored by a generation of “nazers,” a movement started in Paris around 2020 that soon took over the world. You are all familiar with their work, no need to go into it. I knew they were onto something when I smelled a piece by Calice Becker’s granddaughter that went from bread to nail varnish to curry in the opening bar. I am smelling her second album as I write.
Luca Turin works at the MIT; he lives in Boston