“What’s that smell?” is a question that has plagued mankind for thousands of years, but have you ever stopped to ask, “Why does that smell?” The BBC reports scientists at the American Physical Society meeting in Dallas are trying to figure out the reasons why and how things smell, and they may have found the answer: quantum physics. You’re still allowed to blame that odor on the cat, just as long as it’s Schrödinger’s cat.
The breakout theory in Dallas relates to smells occurring when electrons on proteins lose energy, or “quanta.” These cause vibrations that supposedly “act as a molecular signature.” These vibrations travel across the kitchen, bathroom, food court, slaughter house floor or Phish concert and are identified by detectors in your nose. The brain then does all the heavy lifting and tells you, “That’s cinnamon” or “My husband farted in his sleep.”
Experiments with nanowires (absurdly thin wires) show that these electron vibrations can move through space and still “give away what molecules they had encountered along the way.”
In the future, it is possible that super-sensitive “electronic noses” can be developed using the mechanics behind this theory. On that day, a fourth law can finally be added to Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics: “Whoever smelt it, dealt it.”