Alternative Theories of Olfaction
Luca Turin is a controversial figure in science. Chandler Burr's biography The Emperor of Scent tells the fascinating story of Turin's life in the world of scent and his quest to get the scientific establishment to listen to his theory of the sense of smell.
Turin contends that smell is not simply a matter of odorants of a certain shape fitting into olfactory receptor molecules the way a key fits a lock . . . as recent Nobel Prize winning researchers have suggested. Turin proposes that is only part of the mechanism. In addition, he holds, the receptors are able to detect the vibrational frequencies of odorants in much the same way that modern chemical laboratory sensors do.
The vibrational theory of olfaction is older than the more recent and more widely held shape theory of olfaction. Turin has contributed possible mechanisms of the vibration theory and has attempted to show that it should not be discarded—but instead integrated into our understanding of smell.
The Emperor of Scent explains Turin's alternative approach in the context of the story of the man himself. It is a compelling story told in an engaging manner. Beyond the specific theory, it is a story of how the world of science works in "real life."
Turin's own book The Secret of Scent tells the story in his own words. And his strong and colorful personality certainly does reveal itself in this summary of his life's work.
These books reveal a real scientific controversy, which just happens to revolve around one of the most interesting of human functions.
Here's a video of Turin explaining his theories:
Here's an article written by Turin to explain the essential nature of his theory of olfaction:
A Spectroscopic Mechanism for Primary Olfactory Reception
1996. Chemical Senses 21: 773-791
Here's an essay from a scientific journal that puts Turin's proposal in context:
The scent of life. The exquisite complexity of the sense of smell in animals and humans
EMBO reports 8, 7, 629– 633 (2007)
You may also be interested in The A&P Professor review of Rachel Herz's book The Scent of Desire.