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The Emperor of Scent: A Story of Perfume, Obsession, and the Last Mystery of the Senses Hardcover – Jan 21 2003


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Random House (Jan. 21 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375507973
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375507977
  • Product Dimensions: 14.9 x 3.2 x 24.2 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 590 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #1,003,631 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

Nobody knows for sure what makes our noses work the way they do, not even the $20-billion-a-year perfume industry's legions of chemists, whose jobs depend on appealing to those noses. So what happens when Luca Turin, a likable scientist who happens to possess an unusually sensitive nose, proposes a new theory of smell that promises to unravel the mystery once and for all? That's what readers find out in this often funny, picaresque expos‚ of the closed world of whiffs, aromas and odors-and the people who study them. Burr (A Separate Creation: The Search for the Biological Origins of Sexual Orientation) narrates in depth Turin's efforts to publish in the journal Nature: the maddening peer review process lasts more than a year and ends with smug dismissals by scientists who don't understand his work. Turin, whose urbane personality carries the book, runs into similar brick walls when he tries to sell his ideas to the "Big Boys" of the secretive and byzantine perfume industry. Burr, who is skilled at parsing complex science and smart turns of phrase, enters the story in the first person to describe his own difficulties as a journalist writing about Turin: critics clam up and get hostile when asked about Turin's theory. Burr concludes that the hysterical, often incoherent resistance portrayed here "embodies the failure of the scientific process." Grim words for a book so full of wit.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

While waiting for the Eurostar, Burr, a regular contributor to the Atlantic Monthly and author of A Separate Creation, met Dr. Luca Turin, the titular emperor. A biophysicist at University College of London, Turin believes that the nose deciphers smell by using not the shape of molecules but their vibrations. He also possesses a unique gift for scent and the ability to write about perfumes as few can. From their chance meeting, Burr set out to write "the simple story of the creation of a scientific theory" by chronicling Turin's work over several years. Having quickly discovered that his subject's story was much more complex, Burr ends up taking readers into the perfume industry and the scientific publishing world. The view is not flattering (the ugly side of peer review is depicted here in all its backstabbing glory), but thanks to Burr's sensible and honest reporting, it is an accurate portrait. Burr is also straightforward about the difficulties of working with a brilliant and eccentric man like Turin. His fascinating book is highly recommended for all collections.
--Michael D. Cramer, Schwarz BioSciences, RTP, NC
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 29 2003
Format: Hardcover
Having read enthusiastic reviews of this book, I was surprised to find it ill-informed about olfaction science. I'm a biologist in a related field and I had never heard of Turin before, but after I finished "The Emperor of Scent," I read Turin's scientific papers. His ideas are interesting, but he hasn't done controlled experiments to support or refute them. Unfortunately, the background information that Burr provides to support Turin's ideas is frequently inaccurate. Burr is a good writer and seems to have done some background reading, so it's all the more disappointing that he doesn't subject Turin's work to greater scrutiny. This book was a fun read, but take it with a grain of salt.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By D. Cloyce Smith on June 9 2003
Format: Hardcover
In this absorbing book, Burr describes the fragrance industry and how scents are created and marketed, weaves a "scientific morality tale" of professional "corruption in the most mundane and systemic and virulent and sadly human sense of jealousy and calcified minds and vested interests," and attempts to explain and defend Luca Turin's novel theory of smell.
He succeeds with the first two goals. Readers will learn about the seven "Big Boys" (the companies that create virtually all new scents) and how their chemists and perfumers produce fragrance. Whether you enjoy this aspect of the book depends, perhaps, on your interest in fragrance itself; the workings of these businesses fascinated me, but the descriptions of various scents (as well as Turin's remarkably nondescript reviews from his "perfume guide") struck me as tedious. Burr also portrays scientists as plagued by self-interest and laziness and resistance to new ideas. This suggestion always surprises lay audiences, but it is hardly news to readers of Thomas Kuhn or of science writing in general. Galileo, Mendel, the early proponents of the Big Bang Theory, and many others encountered the same hostility or indifference faced by Turin.
The success of the third goal--detailing and defending Turin's olfactory research--is limited, however. On the one hand, Burr ably elucidates the prevailing theory--that we sense molecules by their shape--and raises the standard objections to this view. He then clearly presents Turin's theory: that smell results from molecular vibration (more specifically, from electron tunneling).
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Haans on March 17 2004
Format: Hardcover
The Emperor of Scent is a fascinating, fun to read account of a man out on the scientific fringe. Chandler Burr, tells the story of Luco Turin, PhD in biology and a self described "Bio-physicist" who has been practically obsessed with smell all his life. Turin is clearly an expert when it comes to using his nose to decipher the mysteries of perfume. A book he authored on the subject has gained him access to the inner sanctum of the scent industry.
In the course of his scientific and non scientific dabbling, Turin becomes interested in the theory of smell. The mainstream theory is that smell is based upon the shapes of molecules. But there are several problems with this theory, and as is sometimes the case, the scientific establishment refuses to deal with these problems rationally as too much is invested in the current theory. Turin resurrects an old theory. That smell is based upon how a molecules vibrate. This theory was considered preposterous in the past because the mechanism to measure this vibration seems too complex to be done biologically. Turin tackles this by proposing a plausible biological mechanism for tunneling electron microscopy or spectroscopy. He even finds some supporting evidence for this mechanism in scientific literature. Next Turin sets out to do some experimentation to provide evidence to support his theory. In physics there are theoreticians and experimentalists, In biology theory and experiment are the realm of the same individual or team. Turin seems to be a better theorist than an experimentalist. As it turns out biologists don't understand math very well. (fear of math may have been a reason for choosing that field) and Turin's theory is full of math. On the other hand physicists don't understand biology. Turin is caught in the middle.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By G. Stephen Decherney on June 22 2003
Format: Hardcover
As a former denizen of the NIH, I concur with most of the suggestions about how institutions protect the accepted and reflexively reject anything too different. As a former scientist, Turin's arguments made great sense to me and were fully creditable. As a student of Everett M. Rogers Diffusions of Innovations, I can readily believe that Turin falls directly into the Innovator group and will out of hand be rejected by even his closest friends.
All of that said, this is an excellent book , well worth reading, not only for the fascinating theory of scent, but also about the lethargy with which the scientific community accepts radically new ideas (or rejects them).
For any one who has been at the NIH or a major university this book will remind them of the politics and the pettiness of these great institutions. I loved my 4.5 years at the NIH for the extraordinarily brilliant people there. Nonetheless, I was constantly amazed at the puerile behavior of some of those geniuses.
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