It Smells Quantastic, Doesn’t It?

Olivier Loose
9 min readSep 2, 2020
To what extent is your sense of smell powered by quantum physics?
(Sources images: pixabay, pubchem, and Queensland Brain Institute)

Have you ever wondered how we know how something smells? I mean, the volatile molecules entering your nose have to tell your brain in one way or another: “Hey, it’s me!”.

But how do these messages get up there in the first place?

To find the answers to these questions, we need to turn to chemical messaging and electrical signaling between our nose and brain as well as within our brain. Most intriguingly of all, it seems that we invoke ideas from quantum physics to enable signals to get to our brain.

Let us break down all of this step by step.

An Anatomical-Physiological Exploration

Our sense of smell — called olfaction — is designed to serve multiple purposes: detect danger, identify food when hungry, increase our chances of reproduction, or avoid consuming toxic or spoiled substances. And our nose has physically evolved to optimize these functions.

About 7 cm (2.8 inches) above and behind our nostrils, we come across an air-filled space — the nasal cavity — that contains a tissue, i.e. the olfactory epithelium, in which plentiful odour receptors are planted. We have by estimation 50 million of these receptors.

Towards the base of the epithelium, the receptors have grown extensions (dendrites) which are…



Olivier Loose

Science writer at A Circle Is Round ( • Writing preparation courses and exercise packages in the field of the physical sciences •