Emperor of Scent (Review)

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The Emperor of Scent: A True Story of Perfume and Obsession
 
and the Last Mystery of the Senses
Chandler Burr, 2003
352 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
June, 2013

Chandler Burr has fashioned this nonfiction work, a scientific examination of human smell, into a near novel. Despite charts, graphs—and lengthy disquisitions on isotopes—he's written a gripping, very human narrative.

The hero of his story is Lucca Turin, a brilliant, charismatic, often combative biologist, who has challenged scientific thinking about how our noses actually work. Given our knowledge of biology, according to Turin, human smell should be impossible: "we actually shouldn't be able to smell at all." That mystery is at the heart of this book.

Trained as a biologist, Lucca taught himself both chemistry and physics, a cross-pollination of sciences that has allowed him to burrow deep into the human molecular structure—and to challenge entrenched science. Just how "entrenched" the reigning theory of smell is becomes a running theme throughout the book.

Our nose, Turn posits, distinguishes different smells—not by the shape of molecules that enter our nostrils—but by the vibrations of their atomic bonds. "Poppycock!" says the rest of the scientific community, which has a long and vested interest in holding onto its molecular Shape theory. The "Shapists" work very hard to ignore, even belittle, Turin's research. But Turin is nothing if not dogged in his efforts to convert the world to his Vibration theory.

In case you worry the book contains too much science, relax. There is a good deal of technical discussion, to be sure, but the author and Turnin himself have a remarkable gift for making science accessible—and thoroughly engaging—to non-science folk.

Furthermore, much of the story is given over to the beauty and mysteries of perfumes and their power to evoke nostalgia, regret, loss, beauty, or temperament. It makes for wonderful reading.

The Emperor of Scent is not unlike The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Although more technical (even at times unwieldy), Emepror, like Henrietta, is an arresting human story. At its heart is a scientific mystery, a personal journey, an underdog story (replete with bullies), and a commentary on the flaws of scientific investigation.

A challenging but engaging read, Emperor should offer book clubs a great deal to to talk about and also an opportunity to experiment with scent—challenging members to identify various masked objects by their scent—why not!

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