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

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

4.3 10
by Chandler Burr

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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


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.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
Biophysicist Luca Turin is the subject of this engrossing scientific journey in which the glamorous world of perfumery serves as backdrop to a modern version of the biblical tale of David and Goliath. Turin plays David, a man with a theory of smell that contradicts the currently accepted one. Goliath is played by "the Big Boys" -- the powers-that-be at the world's leading fragrance houses and the scientific establishment that Turin repeatedly attempts to woo with a controversial theory.

Turin's theory holds that the vibration of electrons is the basis of the biological mechanism that determines smell. This is radically different from the established theory, which holds that scents are recognized according to their molecular shape. Turin refutes this by proving that two molecules can have the same shape but smell completely different. However, for the perfume houses to accept Turin's theory would mean an expenditure of millions, even billions of dollars and would leave many of their scientists out on the street.

What makes Turin an engaging character is that along with being a scientist, he is a gifted "nose" who writes a highly respected perfume guide. At first, Turin tries to go the conventional route with his theory, submitting a paper to Nature, the top scientific journal in the field. The referees at Nature reject the paper. Turin then makes several trips to "the commercial altar," only to be turned away after the scientists at the big companies reject his theory. Though Goliath would appear to be the winner this time, Chandler Burr's book is a fascinating read for anyone who wants to take a peek into the hush-hush political process of scientific discovery. Vivian Kelly

The New Yorker
A French perfumer, asked to describe a particular scent molecule, declares, "It smells of the woman who neglects herself." It's precisely this pungent leap from chemistry to metaphor that Burr negotiates so well in his fascinating and lucid book about the sense of smell. No one really knows how the nose works. For the person who figures it out, a Nobel prize surely waits, along with the lucrative gratitude of the multinational perfume companies. Burr's candidate is Luca Turin, a London-based research scientist whom he presents as a Continental rogue, unfettered polymath, and pure sensualist. Turin is good company, and his "vibrational" theory of smell neatly upends conventional thinking, by claiming that the nose is the body's spectroscope and analyzes molecules by electron bond rather than by shape. As both the author and the subject admit, the evidence is still preliminary, but the details of Turin's work unfold like a revelation. For his part, Burr does a fine job of turning both the science and the academic jockeying around a possible publication in Nature into a pulse-racing affair.
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. (On sale Jan. 21) Forecast: This is science writing that's definitely not just for science readers, and major review attention should pay off with sales. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/02.]-Michael D. Cramer, Schwarz BioSciences, RTP, NC
Kirkus Reviews
An elegant analysis of one man’s work in deciphering the sense of smell.

Raised in France, Luca Turin is happy to admit that "the idea that things should be slightly dirty, overripe, slightly fecal is everywhere in France." Given a stinky cheese, says he, Americans think, "Good God!"; Japanese think, "I must now commit suicide"; and the French think, "Where’s the bread?" So perhaps it’s not surprising that Turin should be captivated by the sense of smell, and, with his polymathic background in science, arrive at a theory of how it works, the last sense to be cracked--and still to be universally recognized as so. But journalist Burr (A Separate Creation: The Search for the Biological Origins of Sexual Orientation, 1996) is a believer, and he presents Turin’s work in the best possible light, even its rejection by the prestigious magazine Nature, whose referees’ comments he nimbly dissects and hangs out to dry as a combination of stung egos and vested interests. The theory introduces a whole new wrinkle to what is known about molecular recognition, though the lay audience, happy to have made it through the intelligible science, will be happier still when the spotlight falls on Turin himself, an appealing and genuine maverick who, in bringing quantum mechanics to a physiological problem (and crossing covetously guarded frontiers), invited the wrath of academics, not to mention of chemists at the Big 7 producers of artificial scents, who might greet his smell-prediction algorithm much as the Luddites welcomed mechanization. (It’s interesting to compare the openness of scientific inquiry in Russia and India with its equivalent in Europe and America.) Burr unravels the story, with all itsbeard-pulling and molecular blacksmithing, its megahertz and neurobiology, with grace, an eye for the intelligent human-interest angle, and a steady tincture of bright humor.

The music of science, as irresistible as Vetiver or Rive Gauche.

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Chapter 1


Start with the deepest mystery of smell. No one knows how we do it.

Despite everything, despite the billions the secretive giant
corporations of smell have riding on it and the powerful computers they
throw at it, despite the most powerful sorcery of their legions of
chemists and the years of toiling in the labs and all the famous
neurowizardry aimed at mastering it, the exact way we smell
things–anything, crushed raspberry and mint, the subway at West
Fourteenth and Eighth, a newborn infant–remains a mystery. Luca Turin
began with that mystery.

Or perhaps he began further back, with the perfumes. “The reason I got
into this,” Turin will say, “is that I started collecting perfume. I’ve
loved perfume from when I was a kid in Paris and Italy.”

Or maybe (he’ll tell you another day, considering it from a different
angle), maybe it was “because I’m French, at least by upbringing.
Frenchmen will do things Anglo men won’t, and France is a country of
smells. There’s something called pourriture noble. Noble rot. It’s a
fungus. It grows on grapes, draws the water out, concentrates the juice
wonderfully, adds its own fungal flavor, and then you make wines like
the sweet Sauternes. Paradise. From rotten grapes. The idea that things
should be slightly dirty, overripe, slightly fecal is everywhere in
France. They like rotten cheese and dirty sheets and unwashed women. Guy
Robert is about seventy, a third-generation perfumer, lives in the south
of France, used to work for International Flavors & Fragrances, created
Calèche for Hermès. One day he asked me, ‘Est-ce que vous avez senti
some molecule or other?’ And I said no, I’d never smelled it, what’d it
smell like? And he considered this gravely and replied, ‘ça sent la
femme qui se néglige.’ ” (It smells of the woman who neglects herself.)

This makes him remember something, and he leans forward
enthusiastically. “One of the stories I heard when I started meeting the
perfumers and was let into their tightly closed world involves Jean
Carles, one of the greatest perfume makers in Paris–he used to work for
Roure in Grasse, near Nice, where all perfumes used to be made. He
became anosmic, lost his sense of smell, and he simply carried on from
memory, creating perfumes. Like Beethoven after his deafness. Jean
Carles went on to create the great Ma Griffe for Carven, a result of
pure imagination in the complete absence of the relevant physical sense.
Carles’s condition was known only to him and his son. When a client came
in, he’d go through the motions, make a big show of smelling various
ingredients and, finally, the perfume he had created, which he would
present with great gravity to the client, smelling it and waving its
odor around the room. And he couldn’t smell anything!” Turin smiles,
thinking about it.

The perfume obsession led Turin to write the perfume guide, which out of
the blue cracked open for him doors into the vast, secret world in which
perfumes are created, and there he started noticing little things that
didn’t make sense. A weird warp in official reality. Plus there were the
other clues, the small pockets of strangeness he bumped into in the
scientific literature, carefully fitting these into the puzzle without
even realizing it, without (as he’d be the first to admit) really
understanding what he was doing. And somewhere along the line, between
scouring the French Riviera for bottles of buried fragrances, pursuing
(in his own very particular way) the strange triplets of biology and
chemistry and physics, and prowling the library’s remotest stacks,
randomly sliding into things he found there–something that due to his
intellectual promiscuity he does a lot of–somewhere Luca Turin got the
idea of cracking smell. But it started with the mystery at smell’s
heart, which is not only that we don’t know how we do it. We actually
shouldn’t be able to smell at all.

From everything we know about evolution and molecular biology, smell
does the impossible. Look at two other systems inside your body, and
you’ll understand.

First, digestion. Human beings have evolved over millennia while eating
certain molecules–lipids and carbohydrates and proteins in the roots and
berries and various unlucky animals we’ve gotten our hands on. The tiny
carbs and proteins are made of tinier atoms and molecules, and for your
body to burn them as various fuels, evolution has engineered a digestive
system for you. The system’s first task is to recognize which raw fuel
it’s dealing with, so it can send out the right enzymes to break that
fuel down, process it for us. (Enzymes are catalysts, molecule
wranglers, and every enzyme in every one of our cells–and there are tens
of thousands of different enzymes–binds to a molecule and processes it.
Some break molecules down, scrapping them to use their dismantled parts,
some zip them together, and some rearrange them for the body’s own
purposes.) But in every case the enzyme “recognizes” its molecule by
that molecule’s particular shape. Fat, thin, lumpy, rounded, oblong,
rectangular. The enzyme feels some cleft in some molecule, fits its
special fingers into it like a key fits into a lock. And if the shape of
the lock and the shape of the key conform, bingo: Recognition! By shape.

And what gives a molecule its shape? We think of atoms as these
perfectly symmetrical spheres, shining and frozen on labels of
“Super-Strong!” kitchen cleaners, their electrons zipping around their
nuclei like perfectly spherical stainless-steel bracelets. Since
electrons move at close to the speed of light, if you filmed those
cartoon atoms in motion you’d see a round electron membrane, a solid,
buzzing sphere made of blisteringly fast-moving electrons.

But that’s kitchen-cleaner labels. The skins of atoms are actually made
of the paths of their outermost electrons, but not only don’t they zip
around in perfectly circular orbits, they carve an almost infinite
variety of 3-D orbital grooves around their nuclei. If that’s not
enough, atoms get shoved against and glued to one another in molecules,
forming bulbous structures, or nonspherical structures with disks and
oblongs. Imagine taking the giant inflatable balloons in the Macy’s
parade, each one shaped differently, and pushing them against one
another; their skins smoosh and warp, their bulbs and crevices contract
and expand. So the electrons zip along in these new configurations, in
elongated ellipses and valleys and sharp peaks and strange arcs. Which
means that each molecule creates a unique shape that an enzyme can
recognize as precisely as a retinal scan.

In fact, molecular recognition is arguably the fundamental mechanism of
all life, and it is based on this single, universal principle: Shape.
Receptor cells from your head to your glands and skin recognize enzymes,
hormones, and neurotransmitters by their molecular shapes. The only
variable is time.

The thing about enzymes is that evolution has learned over millennia
that you’re going to need to digest (break down, make up, or molecularly
rearrange) certain things–wild almonds and crab apples and dead
squirrels (sugars, fats, and proteins)–and not others–raw petroleum or
sand or silicate (fluorocarbons and borazines). So evolution has by now
selected for you a complete, fixed genetic library of enzymes that will
bind to and deal with a fixed list of molecules. (It’s not an exact
one-to-one enzyme-to-foodstuff ratio, but it’s precise enough that it’s
why your dog famously can’t digest chocolate, a culinary product his
wolf ancestors never ate: evolution never selected for dogs an enzyme
that recognized the shape of chocolate’s molecules, so if you feed them
these molecules, they get sick.) And if just one enzyme is missing, you
end up with nasty, sometimes lethal, diseases and disorders. You can
dump the squirrels for terrine de lapin et petits légumes, it doesn’t
matter: it’s the same lipids and proteins in your library, and as long
as you don’t eat, say, plastic, for which you have no enzyme, your
digestive system happily recognizes the molecules you consume, be it
McDonald’s or the fifth course at the Clifton Inn. The thing to remember
here, however, is time: enzymes stand ready to identify the right
molecule instantly.

For contrast, take the immune system. Antibodies are designed (they have
to be) to bind to things that weren’t around our ancestors, unknown
bacteria and foreign parasites and each year’s new, nastier, mutated
viruses we’ve never seen before. Your visual system can recognize things
that weren’t in Homo sapiens’s evolutionary environment, like Ferraris
and Star Wars and Barbra Streisand, and so can your immune system, but
your visual system deciphers photon wavelengths while your immune system
is feeling out molecules’ shapes. Here’s the difference. When it
encounters a new virus, the immune system starts rapidly rearranging
genes at random, spewing out antibodies until it hits on one that fits
the invader’s shape, binds to it, and destroys it. (It’s the exact
opposite of a “fixed library” idea; Susumu Tonegawa of MIT won a 1987
Nobel Prize for figuring this out.) So that’s why you’re at home for a
few days with the flu. Your immune system needs time to break the
invader’s shape code and produce the shape weapon to fight it. Where the
digestive system is limited but instant, the immune system is
unlimited–it “takes all comers”; but it also takes time.

But here is the problem. Someone hands you a molecule called a borane.
You lift it to your nose. And without fail, you smell it. There’s just
one catch: boranes were created by inorganic chemists at the beginning
of the twentieth century and never existed in the ancestral environment
of any human being. Yet we smell them. This is impossible.

The fact is that we have never found any molecule in the smellable size
range that we could not smell instantly. This is the mystery of smell.
You smell boranes instantly, not in a few days or weeks, even though you
cannot have an evolutionarily selected receptor molecule for their
unique shape. Smell is unlimited, like the immune system, and yet it is
instant, like the digestive system. And everything we know about Shape
and molecular recognition says this should be impossible.

We understand the human sense of vision intimately, down to exactly
which vibration of a particle of light caught in the vision receptor in
the retina will make us see exactly which color (a 1967 Nobel given for
vision). We know hearing in exquisite detail, can predict with absolute
accuracy which air vibration in the cochlea will create what tone (a
1961 Nobel for hearing). But of smell, we do not know, cannot predict.
This is why smell is the object of two cut-throat races.

The first is scientific. This all-out race is being run in some of the
most powerful labs (by the most competitive researchers with the biggest
egos). The prize is the unscrambling of one of the most important
secrets of biology, not to mention (everyone is betting on this) a Nobel
Prize. An astounding 1 percent of human genes, we recently discovered,
are devoted to olfaction. “So smell must be incredibly important for
us,” notes NIH geneticist Dean Hamer, “to devote so much of our DNA to
it. The only comparable system–and this was the big surprise to
everyone–is the immune system, and we all know why it’s important to
fight off invaders. This says smell was central in our evolution in a
way that, presently, we don’t really understand.”

The other race is for money. Approximately $20 billion is generated
every year by industrially manufactured smells, and virtually all these
smells are made by only seven companies, the Big Boys, which split the
billions among themselves. The Big Boys shroud themselves in secrecy to
protect the public brand image of their clients. They make the molecules
that you associate with the smells of Tide laundry detergent, Clorox
bleach, and Palmolive soap, but they are also the actual creators of the
superexpensive fragrances sold under the rarefied labels Calvin Klein
and Chanel and L’Oréal, Miyake and Armani. The creation of a single
commercially successful fragrance molecule represents tens of millions
of dollars, and the Big Boys employ an army of chemists tasked with
creating them. The way to create them is the magic formula.

This is why Luca Turin’s theory is as important as it is unknown. It is
not only a new theory of smell. Financially, it implies a technology
that threatens thousands of engineers and corporate executives, the
investment of billions of dollars, and the industrial structures of
massive corporations in North America, Europe, and Japan.
Scientifically, it is a wildly revolutionary proposal contradicting a
universal, bedrock assumption of biology–Shape–and positing an
astounding, microscopic electrical mechanism that operates inside the
human body and is made of human flesh. You might as well, fumed one
furious scientist who heard about Turin’s idea, propose a new theory of
digestion through tiny nuclear reactors in people’s stomachs. Perhaps
the only thing odder than the theory is the story of how Turin actually
came up with it, and then of what happened to him when he did, which is
what this book is about.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Chandler Burr is the author of A Separate Creation: The Search for the Biological Origins of Sexual Orientation. He has contributed to The Atlantic and has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications.

From the Hardcover edition.

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The Emperor of Scent: A True Story of Perfume and Obsession 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Forensic213 More than 1 year ago
I picked this book at random from my school's library shelf, and I was very glad I did. It's an intriguing profile not only of Luca Turin, the renegade scientist who became obsessed with scents, but also of the perfume world and the science which surrounds it. It's not any kind of tell-all of the perfum business secrets--a few off-hand mentions of perfume scandals or sordidness are kept name- and context-less--but is an excellent description of the work involved with creating a "new" smell. Luca Turin is, of course, the driving force of the book and its dialogue--much is made of his opinions and actual words. He comes off as an amusing character, a man who has made many breakthroughs, and--quite frankly--a terrible scientist. He has no real concepts of safety regulations, statistical validity, or other scientific virtues. He comes off as a fascinating person that I would not want to work anywhere near me. A great deal of time is also dedicated to explaining the theory of scent--vibrational theory--which Turin had to work so hard to get its foot into the scientific community, and which still struggles for acceptance. These sections can become a little wearying over time, but are very well-written for both the layman's audience and a scientific mind from another speciality. It's a great book for sparking discussion or new ideas; not so much for beach-side reading. On the whole, however, very well-written.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Hey, I'm no chemistry buff. But in order to understand perfume, you have to understand a little chemistry and Burr makes it so understandable, even I can follow it. I particularly enjoyed Turin's viewpoints on classic and newer perfumes. In fact, I bought Turin's book, The Science of Scent, because this book was so fascinating. Read and enjoy!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved this read. I heard Chandler Burr on the Diane Rehm show (NPR) and followed up with the book. There is everything...an irascible but irrepressible & likeable central figure, science and fantasy. Personally, I have a great sense of smell so this was very entertaining!
Guest More than 1 year ago
After being pulled into this engrossing story, I, a resentful student of science, found myself gladly wading through pages of chemistry, physics, and biology just to understand Turin's theory. The information is presented with such clarity that even those who have little background in science can understand the process Turin uses to uncover the mystery of smell. The personal joys and struggles Turin encounters puts a human face on not only the mysterious perfume industry but on the science behind it. This book is a wealth of important, fun, and even life-altering fact.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Books about interesting people make good reads and Luca Turin is very interesting. The science is kept simple and the melodrama is not minimized. Well written and thought provoking. Bill Bryson fans will love it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I love perfume, but reading countless pages of Vogue and Elle does not satisfy. This book throws you into a story that is both captivating and wonderous. It is hard to put down, and you will read it from cover to cover. Luca Turin is a great hero, and he is one of the best characters to be found in a story: eccentric, humourous and determined. A must read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Although an avid reader, I will admit I knew next to nothing about chemistry, perfume, or smell. I was immediately sucked into this powerful narrative of a fascinating sense and the obsessive, funny, and quirky man who cracked it's code. A must read for anyone who loves great literature.