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Sniff-less in Science Fiction

It’s springtime in the Northern Hemisphere, so much of my attention has lately been on my nose. Working in the garden exposes me to an array of allergens, and like anyone who enjoys examining most of their experiences through the lenses of science and fiction, I began searching for interesting nose-related research. Because the end of winter and the onset of allergy season also coincide with the return of my interest in social contact, I’m in the mood to share the highlights of my search.

What does nose science have to do with writing science fiction? Plenty! My simple search for sniffles-related research turned up several worthwhile writing prompts within the study of the sense of smell.

Did you know that the vibration of scent molecules may have as much to do with the detection and identification of different odors as their shapes and surfaces? Apparently, even we weak-nosed humans can tell the difference between molecules that are identical except for a feature as tiny as how their atoms transfer electrons. Where’s the story idea in that? Well, if your main character has a device or an ability to change the way their body odors, maybe they can escape the police. Or affect their perceived age.

Why do we humans have such a comparatively weak sense of smell, anyway? One reason is that, unlike other mammals, it seems that our olfactory bulbs don’t continue making neurons after birth. For the sake of a story, one could speculate about how changed a character’s experience of life might be if they were born with anosmia or hyposmia and later developed a keen sense of smell. Or vice versa; a character with hyperosmia might find a coworker’s perfume so antagonistic that they develop scent-cancelling ‘white odor‘ nose plugs, sell the idea for a fortune, and retire from the cubicle farm.

But what if your main character’s odor issues don’t live in their nose or their brain, but in other organs or their blood? What if exposure to scent molecules triggered unusual experiences instead of the full body yummy feeling most people get from eating or drinking something they like, or the visceral disgust we get when we ingest something foul? To me, that smells like a reasonable science-basis for ‘magic’ potions.

Which reminds me of reading The Scent of Magic by Andre Norton. That was years ago, but it was the first and remains the most memorable use of olfaction I’ve read in a piece of fiction. If anyone can recommend other or more recent stories that put the nose to the literature stone, I’ll be grateful. In the meantime, I’ll amuse myself with more sniffing science.