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The Art, Science, and Fascination of Fragrance


Description: This is a new kind of course, built bottom-up from the kinds of curiosity about the sense of smell expressed by students and professors in a liberal arts college. Not all of these questions have answers, but this course strives to give you  the feeling that you are looking in the right direction as you consider the  fascination of fragrance, the science of scent, and the passion and profit of perfume.  You and professors from Art History, Biology, Chemistry, Classics, Economics, English, Environmental Studies, and Psychology will think together and think out loud about what would be the best  next step  in formalizing your own curiosity about olfaction.  So the course is really a series of investigations into the art, biology, chemistry economics, history, and psychology of fragrances.

Organizing Questions: How exactly does the sense of smell work?  Why do we have considerable numbers of olfactory receptors yet a rather small vocabulary for describing smells?  Did the sense of smell shape the human face? Are perfumes aphrodisiacs? Why are aphrodisiacs named after Aphrodite? What are nectar and ambrosia in Homer's epics? Do fragrances alter moods?   What makes  tangerine fragrance as effective as Valium in lowering stress? Can fragrances really bring back memories?  What role do fragrances play in religious rituals? Why do skins react differently to the same perfume? How did the ancients make/use/store perfumes? Why myrrh and frankincense?  Are there always smells in the air?  Beyond inviting pollinators, of what use are fragrances to fragrant plants? How come mirror image molecules smell so different? How come some fragrances last long on me and some don't? What is the link between fragrance and flavor? What is the Spice Road and how did it come about?  If I like perfume  X, what other perfumes might I like? Why?   How do people lose their sense of smell? Is losing one's sense of smell predictive of certain diseases? How do dogs smell cancer? Why do men seem to pay less attention to smells than women do? Are women really 1000 times more sensitive to musk than men are?  Is there a relation between odor and morality? Can human behavior be subliminally manipulated by odors? Does aromatherapy work? Why do I love some fragrances and hate others?  How come old people's perfumes smell so strong? Is it true that animal urine is used in perfumery? Is there really a smell of fear? Are organic perfumes better than synthetic ones? Why is there the persistent belief in human pheromones? What exactly are notes in a fragrance? How many different smells can a human nose distinguish? How big is the fragrance industry?  What does it take to succeed in it?  What's up with celebrity perfumes? What perfumes did Cleopatra use? In what organs do human have odor receptors?  

Texts:  Rachel Herz,  The Scent of Desire;   Mandy Aftel, Essence and Alchemy:  A Natural History of Perfume;   Patrick Susskind, Perfume;  Scent of a Woman; Essays on the art, history, chemistry, biology, psychology, and economics of fragrance; Poems and stories on fragrance  themes.


Satisfies a Liberal Studies requirement.