One man's passion for perfume leads him to explore one of the most intriguing scientific mysteries: What makes one molecule smell of garlic while another smells of rose?
In this witty, engrossing, and wildly original volume, author Luca Turin explores the two competing theories of smell. Is scent determined by molecular shape or molecular vibrations? Turin describes in fascinating detail the science, the evidence, and the often contentious debate—from the beginnings of organic chemistry to the present day—and pays homage to the scientists who went before. With its uniquely accessible and captivating approach to science via art, The Secret of Scent will appeal to anyone who has ever wondered about the most mysterious of the five senses.
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About the Author
Luca Turin holds a Ph.D. in biophysics from the University of London. Since 1996 he has worked on primary olfactory reception and the prediction of odor character. In 2001 he became chief technical officer of Flexitral, where he uses his theory of olfaction to design new fragrances and flavor molecules.
Read an Excerpt
The Secret of ScentAdventures in Perfume and the Science of Smell
By Luca Turin
EccoCopyright © 2006 Luca Turin
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNombre Noir: how I got into perfume
In 1981, at the age of twenty-seven, I moved from London to Nice. I remember wondering how long it would take me to tune out the beauty of the place, the strangeness of its dream-come-true villas, the pearly quality of its morning light, the surprise vistas at every turn of the various corniches. The answer eventually came: I never got used to it. But I soon found out that, behind the dazzling concave smile of the Promenade des Anglais, the rest of the place was in need of major dental work, full of shabby remnants of the 1960s: millineries selling crosspoint patterns; dismal driving schools; Alsatian restaurants serving choucroute in the summer heat.
At some point in the past, perhaps due to the proximity of Grasse, the perfume business must have flourished. Every few blocks stood a sad little perfumery with shelves full of forgotten wonders gathering dust. Different professions seem to foster different attitudes. French bakers tend to be friendly, florists snobbish and curt, butchers salacious. Perfumeries in Nice were staffed by brassy middle-aged women in a permanent sulk. No doubt the fierce competition from department stores accounted for some of the bad mood. This made the job of ferreting out strange perfumes more interesting, a kind of reversecharm school. At around that time, I befriended a Belgian antiques restorer who scoured flea markets for furniture and picked up old (and cheap, in those days) perfumes for me. That started my perfume collection.
Early the following year, during one of my periodic visits to the Galeries Lafayette, I noticed a shiny black arch in the corner of the perfume floor. This was the brand-new walk-in stand for a Japanese company I'd never heard of called Shiseido, and it showcased their first 'western' fragrance: Nombre Noir. I still remember the black-clad sales attendant spraying it from a black glass octagonal sampler on to my hand.
The fragrance itself was, and still is, a radical surprise. A perfume, like the timbre of a voice, can say something quite independent of the words actually spoken. What Nombre Noir said was 'flower'. But the way it said it was an epiphany. The flower at the core of Nombre Noir was half-way between a rose and a violet, but without a trace of the sweetness of either, set instead against an austere, almost saintly background of cigar-box cedar notes. At the same time, it wasn't dry, and seemed to be glistening with a liquid freshness that made its deep colours glow like a stained-glass window.
The voice of Nombre Noir was that of a child older than its years, at once fresh, husky, modulated and faintly capricious. There was a knowing naivety about it which made me think of Colette's writing style in her Claudine books. It brought to mind a purple ink to write love letters with, and that wonderful French word farouche, which can mean either shy or fierce or a bit of both. I immediately bought a very expensive half-ounce in a little square black bottle. It bore the initials SL for a mysterious name: 'Serge Lutens'. A few months later my girlfriend took it with her when we parted, and soon after the fragrance was discontinued. Little did I know at the time that I would have to wait twenty years before smelling it again.
I had always liked perfumes, but this was love. I had just then got my first real job, and thanks to the election of François Mitterrand as President, France embarked on a brief but intense period of profligate hiring of civil servants. The 1982 vintage was to become legendary: never, before or since, has it been so easy to get lifetime tenure as a scientist. I had a proper job, I had time on my hands, access to an excellent library, and I did what scientists are supposed to do: start thinking. It was Nombre Noir that got me started on a long journey towards the secret of smell, a journey that would take fifteen years.
The secret is this: though we now know almost everything there is to know about molecules, we don't know how our nose reads them. Hundreds of times each week chemists somewhere on earth make a new molecule. In the days before safety officers, chemists used to routinely smell and taste the fruits of their efforts. They no longer do. My colleague Daniel Boerger thinks those who did died early and failed to propagate their genes, and the species homo chemicus var. gustans has disappeared. Still, if it is powerful enough, and they either open the vial deliberately or forget to close it, they will smell it. Every time it is an absolute mystery what each molecule is going to smell like. It is as if each new molecule were an inscribed clay tablet with a word written in an unknown script, and a smell to go with it, like banana or rose or musk. The pile of tablets is now enormous, so big in fact that no one can have smelled more than a small fraction of the total, and we still don't understand how the things are written. The smell is encoded in the molecule using a cipher. This mysterious cipher is what this book is about. Like all good mysteries, it is hidden in plain sight. It has, if anything, deepened as our knowledge of smell has increased. Like most enticing enigmas, it is simply stated: what is this chemical alphabet that our noses read so effortlessly from birth?
Part of the reason for the lack of interest in the subject must be that smell science produces little that is useful to the sober pursuits of medicine and technology. There are few diseases of smell, and those that exist are usually incurable and get little sympathy. And though it is big business, fragrance is a low-tech, frivolous and fickle world....
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What People are Saying About This
Turin writes brilliantly, with the easy confidence of the expert and the infectious enthusiasm of the true amateur.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
While this book does offer up more than just casual chemistry, the interested reader should actually start with "The Emperor of Scent," a book about Turin's quest for how we know what we smell. It's a great first course, with this book making the entree and Turin's own book on perfume, the dessert.
If you have read Luca Turin's other book "Perfumes: the Guide," and are still interesed in more detailed information about perfume, try this one. It now only describes the chemestry of perfume but also how your nose works.
Really fascinating history of scent science, though over my head in many places. This would be great for someone with a casual interest in scent and perfume as well as a strong organic chemistry background.