The Emperor of Scent: A Story of Perfume, Obsession, and the Last Mystery of the Senses Hardcover – Jan 21 2003
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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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Top Customer Reviews
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).Read more ›
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.Read more ›
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.
Most recent customer reviews
The scientific subject matter in the book is truly intriguing, and Turin
is an interesting character. Read more
This is one of those rare un-put-downable books. It's unusual to find a book on science that is so highly, compellingly readable. Read morePublished on April 11 2004 by Sarah Green
Need some basics in chemistry/physics/biology, and helps if you are familiar with major perfume brands, but a GREAT read. Quirky characters. Edge of the seat story. Read morePublished on March 1 2004 by Anne Terry
This book is very engrossing, and I will not repeat the praise many other readers have posted here. Instead, I will respond to some reviewers who criticize Luca Turin's theory... Read morePublished on Nov. 6 2003 by Edward Sisson
Luca Turin may or may not be a genius, but it's hard to tell from this overly written fawning account which breaks nearly every rule of journalistic writing, zipping in and out of... Read morePublished on June 9 2003 by Colon Power
If you enjoy reading about people that think outside of the box, this book is for you. Start with perfume, add quantum mechanics, several drops of ego and stir with panic of the... Read morePublished on May 22 2003 by Taggart Lee
I was so terribly excited to read this book, being both a huge fan of scientific literature and someone who avidly devoured the book "Perfume" by Patrick Suskind. Read morePublished on May 13 2003 by Sarah Lally Brown
Lyrical and analytic, harrowing and hilarious, a page-turner and a philosophical inquiry, Chandler Burr's THE EMPEROR OF SCENT employs its juxtapositions to jolt the reader's mind... Read morePublished on May 3 2003 by Amazon Customer
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