Luca Turin is a biophysicist and a writer who has worked on the sense of smell from a variety of capacities, both at the research lab and within the fragrance industry. He is best known for his vibration theory of olfaction, according to which a molecule’s smell is due to its vibrational frequency, rather than its shape. An idea originally conceived in the 30s, it was discarded for the better part of the 20th century only to be revived by Turin and his colleagues in 1996. He gave a TED talk about the subject in 2005. This is it:
Luca Turin is currently working at the Alexander Fleming Biomedical Sciences Research Center in Athens. I met with him and we talked about smell, his life in Greece, the Singularity and the future of science.
So, smell, right?
What a fascinating subject.
I think so.
You’ve approached it in many different ways, let’s talk about the commercial part first. You’ve worked with and around the fragrance industry. But then you stopped.
A few years ago I started writing a column about smell on a Swiss magazine, called “Duftnote“. After seven years I got kind of sick of it and they very kindly said, yes, you can write about anything else you like. So I’ve been doing that, with mixed success. My wife, Tania Sanchez and I wrote a book together, a guide to perfumes. Writing a guide of two-thousand perfumes would cure anyone’s obsession. It’s not that I don’t like perfumes anymore, I do, when they are good, but it’s just that I didn’t like the idea of being stuck in one thing. Both Tania and I resisted becoming fixtures. After we wrote the book we just disappeared. We just moved on.
Are there many people writing about perfumes? I had no idea.
There are more people writing about perfume than about wine. That is shocking. Something needs to be done about that. It’s become a minor industry.
And what about the proper fragrance industry? What did you think of that?
When I got the money they said, fuck you, give us two-thirds or you won’t get your money. The only way I could salvage this deal was to come here. So that’s what I did.
The fragrance industry is one of the stupidest industries I’ve ever encountered. It is almost uniquely predicated on taking the customer for an idiot. Apple doesn’t sell its products on the basis that you and I are stupid. But the fragrance industry does. There is something cynical and insulting about the entire concept. I find it contemptuous and obnoxious. The idea that a perfume, no matter how shitty it is, can be sold for a lot of money because it has a famous face on it, or because it is supposed to make you more attractive, those things are complete crap. The iPhone is successful because it’s a better machine. There are better and worse perfumes, but it doesn’t seem to matter very much. It’s, as they say in England, all fart and no shit.
This analogy is apt.
So your encounter with the industry was traumatic?
No, actually I was very fortunate, because the people that I’ve met mostly were the perfumers. They are amazing, they are artists, working under the most depressing constraints most of the time. It’s an absolute joy to talk to these people. Then you find out that they propose some wonderful scents that are discarded in favour of a copy of some other piece of shit that made millions. The commercial part of the industry is awful. And the perfumers have a miserable time.
OK, on to another subject: What are you doing here?
There’s two answers to that question. I work in a very good place, the Fleming, with a great team of people headed by my friend and colleague Makis Skoulakis. It is actually a world-class institute and I am always surprised by the fact that Greeks are always surprised by this. The reason you have world-class institutes is rather perverse: You have world-class scientists that go abroad, get jobs at Harvard and stuff, and then they are harpooned by their grandmother and come back. Greeks are very eager to come back to Greece, unlike, say, Italians. We Italians don’t give a shit. Once an Italian makes it at the University of Chicago, Italy can sink beneath the waves and they wouldn’t care. The best places in Greece are staffed by eminent people who have come back to the country.
Now, I hadn’t planned to come here, but the second reason is MIT. I was supposed to work on this contract in Boston, but MIT tried to screw me. MIT administration behaved like thieves and gangsters. This is on the record. I can give you names and addresses if you want. They make the machine turn by taking a very large cut out of every grant. So I got a very big grant on the understanding that I would not work within MIT, I would work at my own company on my own space, and they signed off on that and when I got the money they said fuck you, give us two-thirds or you won’t get your money. The only way I could salvage this deal was to come here. So that’s what I did. The Fleming takes a much smaller cut, and it turned out to be a very good idea, humanly and scientifically.
So what is the project you are working on?
The project itself turned out to be very interesting. As you probably know, my contribution to the science of smell is to take an ancient idea, revive it, prove it and make it work. If you have a theory about smell there is a variety of things you can do. If you want to do tests you can do smell tests on humans, mice and rats or, as it turns out, you can do tests on flies. Flies are very good because they have a very good sense of smell, and you have complete genetic control over them. So you can tweak any of the knobs as you wish. When I was at MIT I became aware that the guys here were working on smell with flies, and we did some experiments with Makis Skoulakis that worked really well. The project was funded by DARPA, and the Fleming Institute was part of it. And flies turned out to be a very good test subject, partly because people are more eager to believe the sense of smell of flies than their own nose.
Why is that?
Smell is very different to hearing or sight. It’s very hard to do the simple experiment, the “listen to this”, or “look at this”. If you say “smell this” people seem to lack confidence in their own sensations. Taste, by the way, is smell. It’s 90% smell. If you lose the sense of smell you literally cannot tell fish from meat.
You expect Greeks to be flamboyant, like Neapolitans, but they’re not. They’re low key, they are reasonable, they don’t like shouting at each other.
How long have you been here?
I have been here for two years. No, I haven’t learned any Greek and I must confess I am extremely uncooperative on this. I am Italian, I speak French, English, quite a bit of Spanish, some Russian and, frankly, I am getting a little too old, my hard disk is getting full. But secondly, the time has come in Europe for everybody to speak English. I am very fortunate, because the Greeks speak English remarkably well, much better than the French for example. So if you go to the supermarket here chances are everyone you ask will be able to tell you where things are. So they made it easy for me to be completely colonial about it. On the other hand of course you miss out on things. I can’t read your blog. I don’t really understand what’s going on. And the result of this is that I find this place boring. It may or may not be in reality.
It’s not. At all.
Well, it is for me and that is a problem. I’ve lived most of my life in England and France, but I’m Italian. Greece for me is not unfamiliar. I sort of understand how things work. Of course there are some peculiarities.
The institute is owed millions of euros by the government and of course we are very down on the list of urgency. You can imagine, if there are no antibiotics in the hospital in Voula, who cares about the Fleming Institute? Because of this our suppliers take months to give us things because they haven’t been paid. Things like that are tremendously frustrating.
Your project is funded by whom?
By DARPA. But it doesn’t matter because the orders are centralised, so if a supplier hasn’t been paid by the Fleming, they don’t trust us any more. Other than that, the bureaucracy is a drag, it took too much paperwork. The Greeks themselves strike me as sensible people, and not particularly excitable. For any Italian to come to Greece is a bit of surprise, really. You expect Greeks to be flamboyant, like Neapolitans, but they’re not. They’re low key, they are reasonable, they don’t like shouting at each other. There is this sort of calm, sober thing about Greece which I like very much and I think will be very helpful in the future.
Do you have meaningful contacts with Greeks outside the institute?
No, not really.
So you do know that you’re in a bubble.
In a bubble of scientists, yes. I get your point. But even if you look at people in your daily life, you get a very different picture than you get in Italy. What I see outside the bubble is not like anything I know very well. It’s actually more exotic than I thought it would be, to be honest.
You’re very good at this, you know. Interviews.
Yes, thank you. I’ve given some.
Probably because you write.
Yes. And also because I live with an intellectually demanding person. She expects me to be coherent most of the time.
How do you spend your time here?
We don’t do very much. We never go out. The baby has taken over everything.
Yes, your baby was born here in Athens. What is it like, raising a child in Greece in 2013?
If you have money, it’s perfectly fine. It’s so related to money. I am paid well, even though I realised that this year I am paying so much in taxes that I’ll make a lot less than last year. I am paid from the US, the exact same amount, but a lot more of it goes to the Greek state now.
You pay taxes here?
Yes. Every penny.
What was TED like?
It was in 2005, TED was much less morally uplifting. TED now has become the church of self-improvement, which is so nauseating. Then it was more gadgety. It was very nice, the only problem is that I gave my lecture on the last day so I didn’t know anybody. By the time they found out who I was, it was over. If I’d talked on day one it would have been a fantastic week. But of course going to those cocktail parties without anyone knowing who you are, especially in the west coast of the United States, where everyone is connecting and socialising like crazy, you end up just standing there with your glass, feeling a bit left out.
Apart from that it was interesting that the effect was more significant once the talk was uploaded online. The young kids in the US, if you say “I have a Nobel Prize” they say “so what”, but if you say “I gave a TED lecture” they go “Duuuude!”. If I want to impress anyone under the age of 30, I mention TED.
What would you like to talk about at TEDxAthens?
Students in the 13th century would spend 7 or 8 years studying almost nothing, but now we spend the same amount of time studying almost everything.
I would like to cheer up the people of Greece. It’s an infuriating place. There is no sense of state, it’s like a village multiplied a thousandfold. I was brought up in France. Efficient administration has been almost a religion there since the 9th century. This country is so loose. But I would like to give a lecture that would inspire local kids who maybe want to become scientists to believe in their own country. I’m not sure I can do that very effectively, though. Plan B is to give a lecture about something that is very dear to my heart, the idea that even though knowledge has increased a million-fold since the 13th century, the duration of studies has actually decreased about 30 percent.
Is that true?
Yes. Students in the 13th century would spend 7 or 8 years studying almost nothing, but now we spend the same amount of time studying almost everything. Together with some colleagues we’ve thought up this notion of a new degree called “Doctor Universalis”. Which was actually a title that was awarded to only two people in history: Albertus Magnus in Paris and Roger Bacon at Oxford. So the idea is to create a new diploma of sorts, for people who study both biological sciences and physical sciences to equal depth and come out essentially knowing everything there is to know. This is obviously a bit of a joke, because they may or may not know anthropology, or botany or astronomy all that well, but anyway something in that direction.
What would a “Doctor Universalis” do?
He or she would get all of the good jobs, all of the professorships, it would be an elite of the elite.
Yes. However, I think that there is a reason science has broken up into so many parts. Knowledge grows exponentially, but the human mind does not. We have pretty much the same brains people in the 13th century did. And there is a lot more to store in them now. It may be impossible for someone to know everything.
The difference though is that now so much is stored “in the cloud”, if you will. If you want to go from a position of ignorance to some sort of expertise, the path now is infinitely shorter than it was even twenty years ago. You start from Wikipedia, you learn what the words are, then you put the words in Google, you get the reviews and the publications, then you get the emails of the people, then you write to them, and pretty soon you’re actually talking to people who are at the forefront. This is a very new phenomenon. Of course it doesn’t make people instant experts, but the access to knowledge is so much faster these days that one of the main obstacles to universality has been removed. And it turns out that it was trivial. It was the time it took to go to the library, find the book and so on.
However, it does take a lot of time for someone to become an expert and truly achieve something in a particular branch of science. One of the things that turned me off biology was the fact that I realised that I would never do something substantial by myself. I would have to work on a tiny detail that thousands of others are working on simultaneously around the world, for a very long time, and achieve something that would have to be combined with the work of thousands of others to become something meaningful.
I think that when the history of 20th and 21st century science is written, it will turn out that the defence agencies in the US funded two-thirds of the great stuff.
That’s true in some areas. I am still a great believer in the Great Man or Woman theory of history. I don’t think there is any evidence that individual inventiveness is any less important today. To give you an example, if you look at the way that Bell Labs was run in the good days, the late 40s and 50s, groups would be created and disassembled almost spontaneously. Not quite spontaneously, because there was some management, but they put together the right people for any particular task. This has become a lot easier in science these days. When you read a report on an interesting breakthrough, more often than not it’s a group of people here with another group working in South Africa plus MIT, plus whatever. This sort of loose, fluctuating figurations of minds has become a lot easier. And people confuse this with the notion that it is impossible now to do something alone. Actually, if you look at those groups, it’s pretty clear who contributed what. In fact, the journals now require you to say it. So I think this is the most exciting time in science ever. And it’s going to get even more exciting.
I’m sure it will. There are some serious roadblocks, though. What do you think about the state of peer review?
Oh, peer review. Peer review is in bad shape. I think there are some things that are dangerous. There is a species that has almost disappeared from the earth: The honest broker. Someone who is not really a specialist but is smart enough to recognise great stuff and bullshit. In science, almost by definition, if you are competent enough to assess something, you have a conflict of interest. This is of course poisoning the atmosphere. And the other thing which has really damaged things is that people just don’t have time. The other day Tania pointed out to me something that I hadn’t noticed: The secretary has disappeared. When I was a student, people had secretaries. And the secretary opened the letters, fielded the phone calls. If you wanted to disappear for a day you’d say to your secretary “I am not in”, then disappear in your office and, well, think. My old head of department would say things like “I can’t talk to you right now, I’m thinking”.
These days people have nine-hundred emails per day, how much time is there to read, to think, to review a paper. Reviewing papers? Who gives a shit, man? Honestly, all of us have better things to do. But of course you have to do it, so the standard of review now is really really low. That’s bad. Really awful. On the other hand, in the old days -that is to say, about 20 years ago-, if you were an editor, you had at least a year on the field because you saw what was coming. This is why US Senators are rich: They know something we don’t. All the great lab chiefs in the US and Europe who were editors in journals always seemed to be doing the right thing, miraculously. It was basically insider trading. Well, that’s over. Because publication is now six weeks. In six weeks you can’t do anything. So in many ways the game is a lot fairer than it was. But in other ways it’s completely screwed up.
OK, another roadblock: Patents.
Oh, patents, phew. That’s a crazy field. I remember a patent attorney, in the beginning of my experience with them, who told me: “There are two kinds of patents. The ones where nobody gives a shit and you don’t make any money, and the ones that really matter, and they fuck you over and you don’t make any money”. And he was talking to an inventor of a small company. I thought he was joking. The problem with patents, of course, is that it’s a 17-year monopoly. 17 years is actually a short time. In the pharmaceutical industry I personally think that patents on drugs should start to apply the day that the FDA approves them. This would lower the price of drugs enormously because they would have more time to get their money back.
I’m a complete anomaly. At my age, 59, I should have a nice comfortable job somewhere, with lots of students and stuff like that. Because of a series of fortunate and unfortunate circumstances -about 50-50 of them-, I don’t.
I think the patent rules should change completely, for industries with a big regulatory burden in them. But even in normal situations, where you are developing something, so you ‘re inventing, you do proof of concept, you’re four years down the line, you do a prototype, start production, by the time you get to the market, nine years have passed. This is not really satisfactory. But of course these are small issues compared to the patent troll problem, where people patent any sort of bullshit so they can sue somebody. This is up to the judiciary. If a hundred of those lawsuits were thrown out as frivolous, it would be over.
The results you get at Fleming, who owns the IP?
Very good question. DARPA has no claim to the intellectual property, they don’t care about that.
What do they care about?
That’s also a good question. This is a subject of great interest to me. I think that when the history of 20th and 21st century science is written, it will turn out that the defence agencies in the US funded two-thirds of the great stuff. They are enormously important. And the reason is actually quite simple: They have no democracy. None. Zero. One guy gets 50 million to spend, and a check book. And a nice fountain pen to sign the checks. And he or she decides where the money goes. Of course they take advice, but they are in charge. There is no committee. There is no conflict of interest. They are no experts. As a result, they’ve had some spectacular fuck-ups, and some spectacular successes, which is how science should be.
Having said this, what is DARPA really interested in? Well, two-thirds of the stuff they do is off the radar. We don’t know about them. The Defence Science Office is the department that funds public science projects. They have the most expensive rolodex in the business. I have been told that the reason they give millions of dollars to scientists is so they know who to call if the shit hits the fan. There may be some truth to that. They have established intellectual networks and, more simply, they find this research exciting. And remember, they have no interest in medicine, there is no high-minded stuff. It’s all about surprises.
What is the ultimate goal of your project?
There are various levels of goals. The big question I think, is this: The mechanism of smell appears to be quantum-mechanical, and is one of the exemplars of a new field, Quantum Biology. Is the part of biology we now think is quantum-mechanical the visible part of an enormous iceberg, or is it in fact just a small lump of ice? Is the brain a quantum computer? Most people would say, of course not. But why not? Right now we ‘re at the cusp of something, but we ‘ll see how it pans out.
Is there a timeframe?
More than my lifetime.
Your lifetime? You don’t believe in the Singularity, what?
Well, Kurzweil, I like the man very much, and I hope he’s right. It would be so wonderful. Maybe I’m an old fart, but I don’t see any sign of things getting catastrophically faster.
Things do get faster. Look what happened with the human genome project.
Yes, it can apply sometimes. Craig Venter made sure things got terribly fast there, and God bless him for that. But I don’t think it’s a generalised phenomenon. There are two things out there, “software”, and that includes molecular biology, and “hardware”. There is an Italian parable: There’s the devil, and he appears to a peasant, saying “I can do anything. If you say something I can’t do, I’ll give you untold riches”. And the peasant farts, and then says, “paint it white”. That’s physics. That’s hardware. And physics has a very different kind of resistance to what we are trying to do than software. The exponential progress has so far appeared in software, not hardware.
I for one hope Kurzweil is right.
So do I. You know, many people ridicule him for all the wrong reasons. Because he takes 600 pills per day or something. You know why he takes all those pills? Because everyone in his family dies at forty-five from a degenerative heart disease. He’s doing fine. He’s a visionary. You know who else was a visionary? Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the MIT Media Lab. For the longest time people considered him a lightweight because he came from the arts side. But you know what? Only lightweight things fly.
What about your project here? What is the timeframe there?
Oh, that ends in December.
I’m out of here.
I am moving to the Institute of Theoretical Physics in Ulm, Germany, as visiting professor.
How does it work? You get grant offers and you move to where the project takes you?
I’m a complete anomaly. At my age, 59, I should have a nice comfortable job somewhere, with lots of students and stuff like that. Because of a series of fortunate and unfortunate circumstances -about 50-50 of them-, I don’t. So I find my self in the position of looking for a job frequently. I have a permanent position in France, which I left because I discovered a case of major fraud at the Pasteur Institute. But I’d rather eat ear wax than go back to France.
But hasn’t that issue at Pasteur been sorted out?
It has been sorted out, but regardless, France is a very depressing scientific environment.
So, after the TEDx lecture you’ll be saying goodbye to Greece.
Yes. I’ll give my lecture and then disappear.