Researchers use math to sniff out the dimensions of smell

Tongues and eyes don’t give scientists much of a problem. Noses, though, are another story altogether.

It’s hard to organize different types of scents. Tastes are categorized into five well-known groups, colors can be labeled and assigned by their component wavelengths, but odors have been much more difficult to label in a systematic and meaningful way. What is the scientific difference between a fragrant smell and a woody smell? In order to give us a rigorous framework of how we think about smells, researchers have identified 10 categories that can be used to describe a broad range of odors using some fancy math. They hope eventually that this work will help to predict what a compound will smell like just by its chemical structure.

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