How do we smell? How does our nose recognise molecules of chocolate, rose, or rotten eggs? Believe it or not the question was only partly answered so far. The simple fact that the discovery of smell receptors only came in 1991 and was worth a Nobel prize, gives an idea of how important the matter is.
And what happens once the molecules hit the receptors? The mainstream theory says: the receptors recognize the shape of the molecules, and assign them a “smell”. Until Luca Turin – a biophysicist with an immense passion and knowledge for perfumes – came along, offering a different story: molecules not only have a shape, they also vibrate, and this is how the receptors recognize the smell, by their vibration.
The Emperor of Scent by journalist and perfume critic Chandler Burr tells the story of this theory, and much more. The first part of the book, called Creation, is about Turin’s quest to find scientific proofs for his theory, mainly by looking for molecules with same shape but different smells (because of the difference in vibration), and others that have a different shape but very similar smells (because they have very similar vibrations).
It all sounds pretty cool so far, and the expectation of laypeople is to see a honest and detached debate within the scientific community, strictly based on scientific principles, in order to verify if Turin’s theory is totally or partially right or wrong. After all, this is what science should be like, right? Well, not exactly. Because science is not an abstract thing, it’s managed by humans, with their vested interests, prejudices and careers to defend.
As Turin and Burr gradually find out, in spite of being far from perfect, the theory of shape is widely accepted. Entire careers were built around it, and the reception of Turin’s new theory cannot but be hostile (and the second part of the book is aptly called War). It starts with Turin’s failed attempt to have his paper published on Nature, and goes on with the strong criticism and closure coming from the shapist’s side.
Being a perfume enthusiast, whose position is “I don’t care how I smell, I only want to know what I’m smelling”, and if I like it or not, or if you – my reader – may like it or not, comes handy with this book, as you don’t care about taking sides, and, even skimming through all the science talk, what is left is the brilliant account of what happens in the background of the science and perfume worlds, and how the two overlap.
As you go on with the reading, however, you will find out that The Emperor of Scent is written solely from Turin’s perspective. This imbalance is explained by the author in a couple of pages that he takes for himself: he indeed tried to chase a lot of shapists to account for their side of the story, but the usual response was: “Although I haven’t read Turin’s paper, he’s totally wrong, but I don’t have time for an interview to explain why.”
This constant attitude is what gives The Emperor of Scent its real meaning, as Burr goes on to explain:
“I began this book as the simple story of the creation of a scientific theory. But I continued it with the growing awareness that it was, in fact, a larger, more complex story of scientific corruption, corruption in the most mundane and systemic, and virulent and sadly human sense of jealousy and calcified minds and vested interests. That it was a scientific morality tale.”
And yet, in spite of this open explanation, Burr is criticised in some reviews for being too biased towards Turin, and for picturing him as the greatest of geniuses. That is not true, for the simple fact that I often found Turin’s attitude quite obnoxious. It’s a matter of opinion of course, but that’s exactly the point: it means that the author’s account was less Turin-centred than it seems, and that he let the readers form their own judgment.
In the end, Turin is finally invited to a scientific conference in India to promote his theory. Burr is indeed very good in picturing the emotional response of a couple of professors and a handful of young post-PhDs to Turin’s theory, with one member of the audience, even (albeit quite involuntarily) going as far as dismissing the theory of shape as well, in order to dismiss Turin’s.
After the conference, Burr presents a nice contrast, reporting the conversation between Turin and an Indian perfume maker: from the depressing world of science to the real one.
All this happened during the nineties. As of now, Turin’s theory is “controversial”, which means: not completely accepted, but not completely dismissed either.
If you want a summary of Turin’s theory, hear it from the man himself, here.
And click on the image below if you want to get the book from Amazon.