An encyclopedia to revive yesterday’s scent

“When you smell an old book, it smells like vanilla, and there’s hints of chocolate and caramel… in fact, it smells almost like ice cream! A Her face came alive when doctoral student Victoria-Ann Mitchell described the sweet-smelling perfume in St. Paul’s Cathedral’s 18th-century library in London. “The simple fact of being able to smell all of these past odors travels through our time. A

Understanding the past through our scent. This is the ambitious project where about thirty researchers from Victoria-Ann Mitchell and six different countries (Netherlands, Germany, France, United Kingdom, Italy and Slovenia) started their journey in January 2021. The Commission is funded by the European Union 2.8. For millions of euros, the Udeuropa project has organized a multidisciplinary team for three years: artificial intelligence experts, historians, linguists, but also chemists and perfumers working together to identify, describe, analyze – even reconstruct – the scents that we have for centuries.

Artificial intelligence to detect perfume

The first experts to put their noses in the project: data extraction experts. Their role? Search the vast public database of millions of texts and illustrations between the 16th and 20th centuries to distinguish all scents. In France, a team from the Eureka Engineering School has been working for more than a year to train artificial intelligence (AI) models.

In the texts, the machine is taught to identify the adjectives associated with the ability of perfume, such as “fruit” or “wood”, as well as the name of the perfume, such as “tobacco”, “leather”, “flower”, or places (“garden”, “bathroom”). “,” Factory “), Explained by Rafael Transi, teacher-researcher in information science. Similarly, AI paintings are capable of transforming certain objects such as a fruit basket, an animal, even a gesture, pinching the nose or a child. A

Study with smell to better understand the past

The data collected was then analyzed and relegated by historians with the aim of feeding a huge encyclopedia of European olfactory heritage by 2023. This large data system will first take the form of an on-line search engine. “You will be able to enter the name of a scent and discover how it has been mentioned over time, what kind of place or situation it is connected to.” A mine of information for the general public as well as humanities researchers.

“Studying all these smells is a new level of understanding of our past, British art historian Lizzie Marx rejoiced. Leather tanning was notoriously nauseating in the 19th century, for example, and tanneries were maintained on the outskirts of cities. It not only provides information on the industrial processes of the past, but also raises the question of our present society: what kind of smell is found in art today? What are their polluting effects? A

Protect our olfactory heritage

The goal of this project is beyond this historical contribution “Develop practical policies for the preservation and protection of the European fragrant heritage, because in addition to a few initiatives in France, We don’t smell at all “, Cecilia Bembibre, a researcher in the science of olfactory heritage at University College London, regrets.

The Odeuropa team is thus working to reconstruct some of the historical scents. Like amber apples. Very common in the 16th and 17th centuries, these pendants in the shape of open work spheres, decorated with perfume, were supposed to protect against bad smells and therefore plague-like diseases. Based on a historical “recipe” found in a family manual, researchers, in collaboration with perfume makers, created a simple amber apple scent: a blend of rosemary, cinnamon, rose and clove scents and more like civet and ambergris. .

“There are also analytical science methods for capturing the scent of an object or historical place”, Added Cecilia Bembibre, who “captures” the smell of old tobacco tins. Method: Place a sensitive sensor near the object to capture volatile organic compounds. These molecules are analyzed in the laboratory to detect the chemical composition of the odor, before it can be recreated.

Towards a sensitive magic

For researchers, it is a question of making the general public aware of the sense of smell, a feeling long neglected. In this way the program collaborates with various museums on the perfumed route of painting (1). “Smell adds an interesting emotional dimension to our past because it calls to our memory”, Dutch Caro Verbeek explained. This historian of art and emotion, for example, reproduced the scent of the Battle of Waterloo with a painting of the same name by John Willem Paynemann at the Rizox Museum in Amsterdam.

Critical. “L’Odyssée sensorielle” in Paris, a great view of nature

The smell of wet soil and grass, a few notes from Eo de Cologne – of which Napoleon liked very much – the origin of a horse, but also “An intense, heavy, almost pungent odor of sweat due to anxiety.” “Caution, this is an explanation, The researcher says. Waterloo does not have the unique smell of war. A But this “olfactory” remains “A way to evoke a ‘historical feeling’, a feeling related to the past”. And to challenge the public about the prosperity of all these small invisible volatile organizations that still make our lives more populous. Near your nose!


Smell from molecules

Scented volatile molecules in our noses Reaching the olfactory mucus, lined with neurons that convert chemical messages into nerve impulses that can be interpreted by the brain, smell.

We have 400 different types of olfactory receptors, Which allows innumerable adjustments.

If the specific scent is unanimous Whether they are pleasurable or not, olfactory perceptions vary greatly from person to person. They depend on our experience, our culture and our genetic heritage.

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