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Aromatic Discovery: Olfactory White

There's a new smell in town. Scientists have created an olfactory odor equivalent to white noise. Linda Wertheimer talks to neuroscientist Noam Sobel about the new scent olfactory white.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

We like to think that yesterday, kitchens all over America were filled with the delicious smells of roasting turkey and dressing. But today is a new day. Today, we're talking about a newly discovered phenomenon scientists in Israel are calling olfactory white, a smell so complex that people cannot describe it.

Their study has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Here to tell us more about this new aromatic discovery is neurobiologist Noam Sobel from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. He is the senior author of the study.

Welcome to our program, Professor Sobel.

NOAM SOBEL: It's a pleasure to be on.

WERTHEIMER: A number of the things that I've seen written about this study compare olfactory white to white noise. What does that mean?

SOBEL: OK. So it's the same type of phenomenon that if you make a mixture of many, many components - so in the case of sound, this would be from the lowest frequency you could hear to the highest frequencies we can hear. Then the mixture will always sound the same. And we call that sound white noise. It's sort of a rumble a bit like a waterfall.

WERTHEIMER: So you got to this olfactory white by combining scents like what?

SOBEL: Typical examples would be a molecule we call amyl acetate, which smells like banana, or a molecule we call phenyl ethyl alcohol, which smells like rose. But the identity of the components of the mixture doesn't matter. They end up, in a mixture, smelling the same.

WERTHEIMER: What's your best guess for what the military industrial complex might do with this research?

SOBEL: Well, you could think of several applications for olfactory white. For example, you can imagine applying olfactory white to your favorite public bathroom at NPR.

(LAUGHTER)

SOBEL: And if you would do that, then said bathroom should always smell white, no matter what additional odors are contributed to it.

Of course, if you insist on going to the more sinister end of things, then you could choose your contraband of choice, and we can take that odor and design it into our olfactory white, which may - initially at least - confuse a sniffer dog or sniffer technology.

WERTHEIMER: That's researcher Noam Sobel of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. Professor Sobel, thank you very much for this extraordinary information.

SOBEL: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: Good stuff to consider over breakfast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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