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Egenis · Research

Making Sense of Smell: Classifications and Model Thinking in Olfaction Theory

Ann-Sophie Barwich

Start date



Tel: 01392 269140Fax: 01392 264676

Email: ab478@exeter.ac.uk

Byrne HouseRoom Number: FF11


This project addresses current issues in olfaction theory, the science of smell. To date, no conclusive answer to how odorants (smelly molecules) interact with the appropriate receptors in the nasal epithelium is available. Although the class to which the olfactory receptors belong was discovered in 1991 (Buck and Axel), identifying them as 7-transmembrane G-coupled proteins, the structure of the binding site continues to prove experimentally elusive. As a result, any hypothesis about the mechanism of primary odour recognition remains speculative to a certain extent. Located at the intersection of the history and philosophy of science, this project focuses on the different classifications, modelling techniques and experimental practices that inform olfactory studies.


  1. What are the conceptual changes and disciplinary developments that underlie the formation of odours into scientifically significant objects?
  2. What can a historically informed analysis of a currently unresolved debate contribute to a philosophical understanding of model choice?
  3. What role can an integrated approach of the history and philosophy of science play in an active scientific debate?

Outlining a first epistemic history of olfaction theory, this project begins by tracing the different disciplinary developments that aided in the development of odours as scientifically significant research objects during the 19th and 20th centuries. In order to study the specific conceptual choices and disciplinary links between odour classifications and experimental practices, I particularly draw attention to the diverging conceptualisations of materiality involved in different disciplines such as plant science, chemistry, perfumery and molecular biology. The perspective on materiality I develop here will give insight into persistent issues underlying research on odours such as problems of measurement, standardisation and the multidimensional character of odours and their materials. In a second step, closer attention is given to the modern olfactory debate surrounding the molecular basis of odours. Here I reconstruct different epistemic stages in the conceptual development of two rival theories, one of which refers to stereochemical features (Pauling; Moncrieff; Amoore; Ohloff; Kraft) whilst the other identifies molecular vibrations in the infrared range as the key feature underlying olfactory recognition (Dyson; Wright; Turin). Analysing the implicit ontological and epistemic assumptions involved in evidence construction and data accommodation in this debate, I demonstrate how, rather than grounded in merely empirical and epistemic considerations, current scientific judgement, favouring a stereochemical approach, is guided by disciplinary and historical developments.


Review and analysis of historical documents on odour studies, contemporary research papers (across fragrance chemistry and molecular biology) and literature in the philosophy and history of science (e.g. Dupré; Rheinberger; Hacking; Chang; Klein).

Adopting what Hasok Chang (2004) describes as "complementary science", I approach a currently polarised and, even though unresolved, unequally distributed debate to pursue the question: what can we learn about current scientific judgement on model choice, if we give alternative explanations the benefit of the doubt?