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

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Editorial Reviews

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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1st edition (January 21, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375507973
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375507977
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.3 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (112 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #380,643 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

144 of 161 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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42 of 47 people found the following review helpful By A. Jogalekar VINE VOICE on March 9, 2005
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
"Start with the deepest mystery of smell" says author Chandler Burr in the opening stanza. "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".

In this gripping and entrancing book, Chandler Burr tackles the life story of Luca Turin, a man with an unusually sensitive nose,and a man obsessed by perfume and smell, a sense that commands a 20 billion dollar enthralling industry of flavour and odors. I was bowled over by Turin, at least the way Burr has described him; a brilliant, feisty, passionate, uniquely creative and completely non-conformist scientist trying to decipher a deep puzzle. Strangely, we still don't know how exactly we smell, and Turin set about to find out just how. Collecting together bits and pieces of biology, chemistry and physics, recent and past, he resurrected a fifty year old theory of smell in an astoundingly novel way. Burr also chronicles the intense interactions Turin had with other scientists, prima donnas in the field, big perfumery company scientists and executives, and the editors of the prestigious journal Nature. Turin was as much of a public person as a private one. In the end, Turin fails to convince most of them of the value of his theory, and ends up publishing his theory in a reasonably good but not blockbuster journal.
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28 of 32 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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22 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Richard Charles on February 18, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I've dabbled for years with essential oils and always was at a loss to describe their effects and sensations. The man that the book is telling us about is a true Victorian polymath: a multifaceted scientist, an effete snob, an accurate, passionate descriptive writer of the senses.
I laughed out loud dozens of times, was driven mad with desire to smell some of these substances and perfumes, was angered by the intransigence of the scientific community.
This is just a great and fascinating read, gliding effortlessly between topics with great irony and clarity.
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