New Book: What the Nose Knows - The Science of Scent in Everyday Life ~ by Avery Gilbert

11th June, 2008

Avery Gilbert (website) has "air-kissed fashion celebrities and sniffed the scalps of elderly ladies being shampooed in a mock salon." He was among the first to smell Elizabeth Taylor's White Diamonds, but also one of the first to sniff purified 3-methyl-2-hexenoic acid - the aromatic essence of ripe, unwashed armpits. He knows all about nose fatigue and “sensory truce” among perfume creators and their creations, having been on the team that created Ralph Lauren’s Safari (p. 85.)

Gilbert is a Ph.D known as a smell scientist and sensory psychologist. He has that rare ability that many scientists lack – to write in an understandable, entertaining way so that the general public can find an academic study funny and informative. He weaves fact-based stories and astute observations about numerous scent/fragrance/smell/odor(s) known to the modern and the ancient world into his debut book What the Nose Knows - The Science of Scent in Everyday Life.

Gilbert has worked for Givaudan-Roure, been a member of the faculty of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, President of the Sense of Smell Institute and founded three olfactory-related start-up companies. He’s been involved with work that looks at, creates, or otherwise is intimately involved with stuff that smells - from perfume to dead bodies to scenting concert theaters. Eclectic and covering the breadth and depth of the world of scent, his ongoing work in the perfume industry includes examining the link between the visual and tactile experiences associated with odor. To that end, he has researched and written on olfactory synesthesia, the ability to see colors and shapes while smelling and founded Synesthetics, Inc., a consulting firm. At Monell, Gilbert co-authored the National Geographic Smell Survey, a six-sample scratch-and-sniff test sent to all 14 million readers of the magazine, the largest participatory study on the sense of smell ever conducted. He invented and validated the Cranial I QuickSniff ®, a rapid smell test for use by doctors.

For an ADD-addled right-brained person such as myself, this romp around the nose, culture, food, flavor and perfume world is a delight. Not a dry and dusty tome at all, as are so many scent-by-scientists’ books, I find I can pick up the book and let it fall open to any page and there's something of interest, well-written and crackling with humor and intellect. Written in a breezy, unaffected style and backed with 40-page "notes" that function as a bibliography, it'll satisfy the most left-brained reader who wants to follow up on the many quotes and facts presented. What the Nose Knows will fill in the gaps of your knowledge about scents, and provide a lot of water-cooler – and perfume counter - conversations. Included is probably the most in-depth examination of the use of scent in movie theaters, obviously a passion of Gilbert.

I'm not going to attempt to summarize the chapters in the book, but I will share, as a teaser, many of the topics and the page they're on - I used up one-and-a-half page tags from my Post-It pen before I ran out three-fourths of the way through, so let the roll call of topics begin, albeit not compete:

The Wine Aroma Wheel and the wheels it spawned, from natural perfume to cheese and beer: p.7

The Perfumers Problem – how to manipulate and create with the skeleton: p. 10

The Jean Carles Method of perfume education: p. 11

Linnaeus' categories – helpful nitpicking that endures the test of time: p. 12

Veterans Administration Hospital Analyzes Farts (alert - skatole and indole theory dashed!) begs the burning question - who has to handle the toot tube?: p. 28

Reefer Madness – a bud by any other name would smell so sweet: p. 31

The Mountain Misery Plant of the Sierras – stinking up an ecosystem: p. 38

Scented Butterflies – would you like a chocolate or vanilla wing?: p. 40

FlavorNet online: p. 47

Don't let your kids play soccer if you want them to grow up to be perfumers: p. 50

Cacosmia – yes, to some people, everything smells like shit: p. 52

Human Odor Perception: p. 61

Calkin and Jellinek – average nose needed, genius memory and association: p. 67

Suskind's Perfume, Rushdie's Midnight's Children: p. 69

One part of the brain sniffs two ways: p. 80

Amateur sniffing a scent strip v. a professional: p. 85

A Nose for the Mouth – hold your nose, you can’t taste while you eat. Really: p. 91

South Park’s Cartman in Costa Rica, President Chirac in Paris – two side of the same coin: p. 103

Wine glass shape for sniffing, scent strip shape for sniffing - the preferences: p. 110

The Three Traits of Olfactory Genius: p. 128

Percentage of people that are apathetic v. those fanatical about scent: p. 130

Aroma Jockey: p. 131

Emily Dickinson - creepy and a bit crazy about flowers: p. 137

Eugene Rimmel as the Fred Hayman of the 1800's: p. 183


Some more of Gilbert’s musings:

  • We are in danger of losing culturally meaningful smells. Who remembers what Wite-Out and ditto ink smell like?
  • Sniffing coffee beans does not “refresh” the nose after prolonged smelling.
  • Every cultural cuisine in the world can be made from a single collection of about two dozen spices.
  • When it comes to detecting odors, new evidence suggests that people are often as good as dogs.
  • Former Playboy Bunny Izabella St. James gags whenever she smells baby oil because she developed a learned odor aversion to it during her stint at the Playboy Mansion.

From aromas in movies, the perfumer’s use of a “skeleton”, Proust’s madelines, Smell Museum, GC/MS, GC-O, e-nose coming from a robot factory near you, engineering scent back into flowers to discussing how odor can allow police to have “probable cause” to conduct a search, there is something for everyone in the book. It’s as delicious as a frangipani-infused chocolate simultaneously delighting the tastebuds and the scent receptors in the mouth; What the Nose Knows will forever change your perceptions about many of the scent myths we know. It’ll also open your nose and mind to the exciting new frontier of an ancient sense too-long neglected by scholars. Avery Gilbert hurtles us forward in our thinking about our nose and leaves the nose-governed among us anticipating his next book, wondering what fragrant avenues are there left to sniff out, and what new secrets of the nose will he share with us?

What the Nose Knows is Available from June 24th - pre-order now from Amazon via the Basenotes Book Shop.

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About the author: Anya McCoy

Anya originally offered the natural perfume line “Anya’s Tropical Essences” on South Beach, Miami in the early 1990s. Her studies in ethnobotany and landscape architecture always involved fragrant plants, a lifelong passion of hers. She is self-taught in the style of French classical perfumery, and has knowledge of Middle Eastern and Indian perfumery techniques. She is the President of the Natural Perfumers Guild and teaches basic perfumery at


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    • mikeperez23 | 26th June 2008 23:03

      So, did anyone order this yet - it was released this week?

      I'm considering buying it and taking it with me on my summer vacation.

    • TaoLady | 27th June 2008 00:42

      Just ordered here and will sit impatiently by the mailbox. When are you going on vakay? You must start a thread as SOON as you've finished! Sounds fab.

    • mikeperez23 | 4th July 2008 03:36

      I just got mine in the mail today - I'm not gonna read it til I go on vacation (next week!!).

      I'm excited to read someone else's scientific yet fun commentary on smells, besides Burr & Turin.

    • TaoLady | 8th July 2008 00:15

      Mine was in today's mail...dropped all the groceries on the floor (left them there) and am now chewing up page 9!!!

      Will report!! (Good facile writing. HUGE number of "footnotes"!!)

      Couple of hours later: Oh geeze - I'm gonna be up all night!! Fascinating! How the gas chromatograph Givaudan trains perfumers...scented butterflies...(Turin gets a nod so far, but his knuckles rapped for "capsule reviews (that are) highly stylized" ... and that , at the end, "a reader doesn't what it (Apres l'Ondee) smells like) Woo hoo....

    • 30 Roses | 10th July 2008 06:27

      Thanks for posting this-- I just checked and our library has a copy which is available and which I've reserved online and will soon be reading! :)

    • Natural_Juice | 28th July 2008 16:12

      Bump -- soooooooo? Report back - you know I love this book re: my review here on BN. If I have a spare minute soon I'm going to dip back in - fun on every page!

    • mikeperez23 | 29th July 2008 04:10

      I took it with me on my vacation (along with The Secret of Scent by Burr) and although I haven't finished the book yet, I found Mr. Gilbert's short, almost essayed style of writing very easy to read.

      I have learned a TON of new information about smells...I can't wait to post some threads with some of this information. I bet there's a lot that we Basenoter's don't know about the 'science' behind some smells.

    • Teddius | 30th July 2008 03:30

      I'm almost through with Gilbert's book. It is a quick, pleasant read. It reads more like a series of magazine articles than a book, though - but this makes it a perfect summer book. You can put it down at any time and not worry about getting lost...

      There are some interesting anecdotes and facts (opinions?) that will tickle most BN'ers fancy. (I never have liked the whole coffee bean thing in fragrance stores...) But a couple of the chapters are waaay too long, such as the one on scent and the movies.


    • purplebird7 | 31st July 2008 18:26

      I considered ordering this unseen from Amazon because the bookstores and libraries around here haven't stocked it, but I reconsidered. I was afraid that it would contain "fluff" or a series of loosely related facts, some of them interesting but more of them trite.

      This summer I read Perfumes: The Guide by Luca Turin and The Perfect Scent by Chandler Burr, both of which I enjoyed greatly. I also re-read The Emperor of Scent by Burr about Turin's vibrational theory of the sense of smell, and in preparation for my current selection, The Secret of Scent by Turin about his own theory. I also highly recommend those two books.

      After that, I wonder how What the Nose Knows will compare. If anyone has read the Burr and Turin books and also the Gilbert book, what do you think?