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Luca Turin (born 20 November 1953 in Beirut, Lebanon) is a biophysicist with a long-standing interest in the sense of smell.

Vibration theory of olfactionEdit

Since 1996 Turin has been the leading proponent of the vibration theory of olfaction, which proposes that the vibrational spectroscopic properties of molecules can be an important determinant of their associated smells, rather than just the specific "lock and key" ligand binding proposed by the orthodox shape theory of olfaction. Turin suggested that a plausible mechanism for such a molecular spectroscope could be inelastic electron tunneling.

A major prediction of Turin's theory is the isotope effect: that the normal and deuterated versions of a compound should smell different due to unique vibration frequencies, despite having the same shape. A 2001 study by Haffenden et al. showed humans able to distinguish benzaldehyde from its deuterated version.[1]

However, experimental tests published in Nature Neuroscience in 2004 by Keller and Vosshall failed to support this prediction, with human subjects unable to distinguish acetophenone and its deuterated counterpart.[2] The study was accompanied by an editorial, which considered the work of Keller and Vosshall to be "refutation of a theory that, while provocative, has almost no credence in scientific circles." It continued, "The only reason for the authors to do the study, or for Nature Neuroscience to publish it, is the extraordinary -- and inappropriate -- degree of publicity that the theory has received from uncritical journalists."[3] The journal also published a review of The Emperor of Scent, calling Chandler Burr's book about Turin and his theory "giddy and overwrought."[4]

Philosopher of science Miriam Solomon of Temple University, who reviewed Turin's own book in Science,[5] has suggested that Nature Neuroscience may have been defensive about the positive publicity surrounding Turin's theory because Nature, the parent journal, rejected Turin's original article.[6] (Turin's research paper was published instead in Senses.)[7] Nevertheless, two years after publishing the Vosshall paper and the accompanying editorial, the news website of Nature published an article about a study that supported Turin's theory: "A controversial theory of how we smell, which claims that our fine sense of odour depends on quantum mechanics, has been given the thumbs up by a team of physicists."[8]

In addition, tests with animals have shown fish and insects able to distinguish isotopes by smell.[9][10] Biophysical simulations published in Physical Review Letters in 2007 suggest that Turin's proposal is viable from a physics standpoint.[11]

The vibration theory received possible support from a 2004 paper published in the journal Organic Biomolecular Chemistry by Takane and Mitchell, which shows that odor descriptions in the olfaction literature correlate more strongly with vibrational frequency than with molecular shape.[12] However, the authors state "Our view is that the relationship between vibrational frequencies and odour is not causal (as in Turin's theory), but may come about indirectly as a consequence of similar molecules having similar properties." The method may be seen as an approach within the field of Cheminformatics, in which a variety of approaches are used to predict the function of molecules from their characteristics, not all of which imply a causal link between the input (here, vibrational frequencies) and output (here, odour prediction).


Turin was born in 1953 in Beirut, Lebanon, to Italian Argentine parents. He lives in Somerville, MA.

Education and employmentEdit

Turin earned his Ph.D. in physiology at University College London. From 1982 until 1988, he worked in France as a researcher for the CNRS at the Villefranche Marine Station near Nice. He was then employed at the Pasteur Institute from 1988 until 1990.

After leaving the CNRS, Turin first held a visiting research position at the National Institutes of Health in North Carolina[13] before moving back to London, where he became a lecturer in biophysics at University College London. In 2001 Turin was hired as CTO of start-up company Flexitral, based in Chantilly, Virginia, to pursue rational odorant design based on his theories. In April 2010 he described this role in the past tense,[14] and the company's domain name appears to have been surrendered.[15]

As of 2010, Turin is currently at MIT, working on a project to develop an electronic nose based in part on his theories, financed by DARPA.[14] From April 2011 on, he will be working at the Fleming Biomedical Sciences Research Centre in Vari, Greece.

Role in the case of Henri KornEdit

Turin's role in reporting a high-profile instance of scientific fraud was reported in 2007 in both Nature and Le Nouvel Observateur.

In 1988, Turin began work at the lab led by neuroscience researcher Henri Korn at the Pasteur Institute. There, Turin and his colleague Nicole Ropert reported to their superiors that they believed some of Korn's research on neurotransmitters was based on fabricated results.[16] After Turin made a formal request that the CNRS investigate the allegations, he was told to find work outside of France; Ropert was also asked to leave.[17][18]

Korn was awarded the prestigious Richard Lounsbery Award in 1992 and became a member of the National Academy of Sciences in the U.S. and the French Academy of Sciences.[19] Then in 2007, re-analysis of Korn's data by Jacques Ninio in the Journal of Neurophysiology showed serious anomalies that suggested the results were indeed fabricated.[16]

Publications and media coverageEdit

Turin is the author of the book The Secret of Scent (2006), which details the history and science of his theory of olfaction, and an acclaimed critical guide to perfume, Parfums: Le Guide, with two editions published in French in 1992 and 1994. He is also the subject of the 2002 book The Emperor of Scent by Chandler Burr,[13] as well as of the 1995 BBC Horizon documentary "A Code in the Nose."

Since 2003, Turin has also written a regular column on perfume, "Duftnote," for NZZ Folio, the German-language monthly magazine of Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung. The column is also published in English on the magazine's website.[20] He also publishes a regular (every second week) column in the Feuilleton of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung under the title Wie sich jetzt herausgestellt hat or in English: "As it turns out".

In 2008, Viking Press published Perfumes: The Guide by Turin and Tania Sanchez. The book comprises 1,500 critical reviews of individual fragrances, plus introductory essays about the art, science, and history of perfume.

Books Edit

  • Turin, Luca (1992). Parfums. Le guide (french).
  • Turin, Luca (2006). The Secret of Scent: Adventures in Perfume and the Science of Smell, New York: Ecco.
  • Turin, Luca; Tania Sanchez (2008). Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, Penguin.

References Edit

  1. Haffenden, L. J. W., V. A. Yaylayan, J. Fortin (2001). Investigation of vibrational theory of olfaction with variously labelled benzaldehydes. Food Chemistry 73 (1): 67–72. see also [1]
  2. Keller, Andreas, Leslie B. Vosshall (2004). A psychophysical test of the vibration theory of olfaction. Nature Neuroscience 7 (4): 337–338.
  3. (2004) Testing a radical theory. Nature Neuroscience 7 (4): 315–315.
  4. Gilbert, Avery (2003). The Emperor's new theory. Nature Neuroscience 6 (4): 335–335.
  5. Solomon, Miriam (2006). HISTORY OF SCIENCE: On Smell and Scientific Practice. Science 313 (5788): 763–764.
  6. Solomon, Miriam. "Norms of Epistemic Diversity." Episteme: A Journal of Social Epistemology, pp 23-36, 3.1 (2006) [2]
  7. Turin, Luca (1996). A Spectroscopic Mechanism for Primary Olfactory Reception. Chemical Senses 21 (6): 773–791.
  8. includeonly>"Rogue Theory of Smell Gets a Boost" (– Scholar search), 2006-12-07. [dead link]
  9. Havens, Barry R. (1995). Food Flavors: Generation, Analysis and Process Influence, 497–524, Elsevier Science.
  10. Hara, J (1977). Olfactory discrimination between glycine and deuterated glycine by fish. Experientia 33 (5): 618–619.
  11. Brookes, Jennifer C., Filio Hartoutsiou, Andrew P. Horsfield, and A. Marshall Stoneham (2007-01-16). Could Humans Recognize Odor by Phonon Assisted Tunneling?. Physical Review Letters 98 (038101): 038101.
  12. Takane, Shin-ya, John B. O. Mitchell (2004). A structure-–odour relationship study using EVA descriptors and hierarchical clustering. Organic & Biomolecular Chemistry 2 (22): 3250–3255.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Burr, Chandler (2002). The Emperor of Scent: A Story of Perfume, Obsession, and the Last Mystery of the Senses, New York: Random House.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Nina Sinatra, The science of smell, The Tech, MIT, 23 April 2010
  15. Archive of, via Accessed 21 May 2010
  16. 16.0 16.1 Butler, Declan (2007-09-13). Long-held theory is in danger of losing its nerve. Nature 449 (7159): 124–125.
  17. de Pracontal, Michel (2007-09-27). Fraude à l'Institut Pasteur ? Savants au bord de la crise de nerfs. Le Nouvel Observateur (2238): 110.
  18. "Je leur ai expliqué la situation. J'ai dit que le devoir d'un scientifique était d'établir la vérité et que je m'étais trouvé dans un laboratoire dont le directeur agissait comme un faussaire. On m'a répondu que j'avais cinq jours pour me trouver un autre poste, de préférence hors de France !" (Luca Turin, as quoted by Michel de Pracontal in Le Nouvel Observateur)
  19. de Pracontal, Michel (2007-09-27). Fraude à l'Institut Pasteur ? Savants au bord de la crise de nerfs. Le Nouvel Observateur (2238): 108.
  20. NZZ-Folio, Duftnote (english version)

External links Edit

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