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The Emperor of Scent: A Story of Perfume, Obsession, and the Last Mystery of the Senses [Hardcover]

Chandler Burr
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Jan. 21 2003
For as long as anyone can remember, a man named Luca Turin has had an uncanny relationship with smells. He has been compared to the hero of Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume, but his story is in fact stranger, because it is true. It concerns how he made use of his powerful gifts to solve one of the last great mysteries of the human body: how our noses work.

Luca Turin can distinguish the components of just about any smell, from the world’s most refined perfumes to the air in a subway car on the Paris metro. A distinguished scientist, he once worked in an unrelated field, though he made a hobby of collecting fragrances. But when, as a lark, he published a collection of his reviews of the world’s perfumes, the book hit the small, insular business of perfume makers like a thunderclap. Who is this man Luca Turin, they demanded, and how does he know so much? The closed community of scent creation opened up to Luca Turin, and he discovered a fact that astonished him: no one in this world knew how smell worked. Billions and billions of dollars were spent creating scents in a manner amounting to glorified trial and error.

The solution to the mystery of every other human sense has led to the Nobel Prize, if not vast riches. Why, Luca Turin thought, should smell be any different? So he gave his life to this great puzzle. And in the end, incredibly, it would seem that he solved it. But when enormously powerful interests are threatened and great reputations are at stake, Luca Turin learned, nothing is quite what it seems.

Acclaimed writer Chandler Burr has spent four years chronicling Luca Turin’s quest to unravel the mystery of how our sense of smell works. What has emerged is an enthralling, magical book that changes the way we think about that area between our mouth and our eyes, and its profound, secret hold on our lives.

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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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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Engaging story, but bad science April 29 2003
By A Customer
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
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
4.0 out of 5 stars Science on the Fringe March 17 2004
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
5.0 out of 5 stars Passes the sniff test June 22 2003
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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Most recent customer reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars interesting information, wandering prose
The scientific subject matter in the book is truly intriguing, and Turin
is an interesting character. Read more
Published on Jan. 12 2009 by avid reader and engineer
5.0 out of 5 stars For Perfume-Lovers, Biology Nerds, and Curious Minds
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 more
Published on April 11 2004 by Sarah Green
5.0 out of 5 stars Wow - fascinating - scathing
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 more
Published on March 1 2004 by Anne Terry
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book on resistance of science to new theories
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 more
Published on Nov. 6 2003 by Edward Sisson
2.0 out of 5 stars An interesting story undone by lugubrious writing
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 more
Published on June 9 2003 by Colon Power
4.0 out of 5 stars A whiff of Intrigue
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 more
Published on May 22 2003 by Taggart Lee
2.0 out of 5 stars Not as compelling as I had hoped
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 more
Published on May 13 2003 by Sarah Lally Brown
5.0 out of 5 stars Lyrical and Analytic, Harrowing and Hilarious
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 more
Published on May 3 2003 by Bookreporter
5.0 out of 5 stars An Engaging Story
It's hard to believe this is non-fiction. It reads like a novel, gripping you all the way. The cast of characters is fascinating, and the central debate about science is so... Read more
Published on April 19 2003 by Gary M. Olson
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