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This title in other editions

The Emperor of Scent: A True Story of Perfume and Obsession


The Emperor of Scent: A True Story of Perfume and Obsession Cover

ISBN13: 9780375759819
ISBN10: 0375759816
Condition: Standard
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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. Ive

loved perfume from when I was a kid in Paris and Italy.”

Or maybe (hell tell you another day, considering it from a different

angle), maybe it was “because Im French, at least by upbringing.

Frenchmen will do things Anglo men wont, and France is a country of

smells. Theres something called pourriture noble. Noble rot. Its 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, Id never smelled it, whatd 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.

Carless condition was known only to him and his son. When a client came

in, hed 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 couldnt 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

didnt 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 hed 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 librarys 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 smells

heart, which is not only that we dont know how we do it. We actually

shouldnt 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

youll 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 weve 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 systems first task is to recognize which raw fuel

its 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 bodys own

purposes.) But in every case the enzyme “recognizes” its molecule by

that molecules 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 youd see a round electron membrane, a solid,

buzzing sphere made of blisteringly fast-moving electrons.

But thats kitchen-cleaner labels. The skins of atoms are actually made

of the paths of their outermost electrons, but not only dont they zip

around in perfectly circular orbits, they carve an almost infinite

variety of 3-D orbital grooves around their nuclei. If thats 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 Macys

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 youre 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. (Its not an exact

one-to-one enzyme-to-foodstuff ratio, but its precise enough that its

why your dog famously cant digest chocolate, a culinary product his

wolf ancestors never ate: evolution never selected for dogs an enzyme

that recognized the shape of chocolates 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 doesnt

matter: its the same lipids and proteins in your library, and as long

as you dont eat, say, plastic, for which you have no enzyme, your

digestive system happily recognizes the molecules you consume, be it

McDonalds 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 werent around our ancestors, unknown

bacteria and foreign parasites and each years new, nastier, mutated

viruses weve never seen before. Your visual system can recognize things

that werent in Homo sapienss 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. Heres 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 invaders shape, binds to it, and destroys it. (Its the exact

opposite of a “fixed library” idea; Susumu Tonegawa of MIT won a 1987

Nobel Prize for figuring this out.) So thats why youre at home for a

few days with the flu. Your immune system needs time to break the

invaders 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. Theres 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 its important to

fight off invaders. This says smell was central in our evolution in a

way that, presently, we dont 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 LOréal, 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 Turins 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 Turins idea, propose a new theory of

digestion through tiny nuclear reactors in peoples 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.

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 1 comment:

Carol, October 9, 2011 (view all comments by Carol)
Seeing the author on a book fair panel made me realize why I didn't like this book; Chandler Burr is anti-science. In this book he promotes the views of one man on the theory of scent; these views have been discredited and are not mainstream science. If you really want to learn about the science of scent, read Avery Gilbert's "What the Nose Knows," which he wrote after becoming infuriated by the mistakes in "The Emperor of Scent."
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Product Details

Burr, Chandler
Random House Trade
New York
Great britain
Scientists - General
Science & Technology
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Series Volume:
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
8.02x5.20x.70 in. .54 lbs.

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The Emperor of Scent: A True Story of Perfume and Obsession Used Trade Paper
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$7.50 In Stock
Product details 352 pages Random House Trade - English 9780375759819 Reviews:
"Review" by , "A brilliant, feisty scientist at the center of a nasty, back-stabbing, utterly absorbing, cliff-hanging scramble for the Nobel Prize. The Emperor of Scent is a quirky, wonderful book."
"Review" by , "Professional perfume critic, obsessive collector of rare fragrances, academic-bad-boy biochemist and world-class eccentric, Luca Turin would be the worthy subject of a book even if he hadn't come up with a revolutionary scientific theory. Written with skill and verve, The Emperor of Scent is an engrossing intellectual detective story about one iconoclast's quest to solve a centuries-old mystery — how smell works."
"Review" by , "The Emperor of Scent is a gem of a book — a suspense story at whose heart is a man of super-human powers who is also flawed and justifiably arrogant and dangerously steeped in hubris. I challenge any intelligent, curious mind not to tumble into this story and find themselves immediately engrossed. I fell in love with Luca Turin — he is everything I admire in a human: irreverent, witty, imaginative, determined, elitist without a trace of snobbery, and above all a creative genius. And Chandler Burr is a magician himself, and a man we should all be so lucky to have at a dinner party; I was mesmerized and enlightened by the many perfect asides woven into the main body of this incredible true tale."
"Review" by , "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 [of scent] once and for all? That's what readers find out in this often funny, picaresque exposé of the closed world of whiffs, aromas, and odors — and the people who study them."
"Review" by , "Exhibiting more grace than a magician in tails, Chandler Burr brings science and the people who practice it to life in The Emperor of Scent....Burr does a remarkable job of explaining both Turin, the man behind the idea, and his science."
"Review" by , "Chandler Burr...has transformed a chance meeting with a curious biophysicist named Luca Turin into an amusing and poetic adventure in science and art."
"Synopsis" by , The Emperor of Scent tells of the scientific maverick Luca Turin, a connoisseur and something of an aesthete who wrote a bestselling perfume guide and bandied about an outrageous new theory on the human sense of smell. Drawing on cutting-edge work in biology, chemistry, and physics, Turin used his obsession with perfume and his eerie gift for smell to turn the cloistered worlds of the smell business and science upside down, leading to a solution to the last great mystery of the senses: how the nose works.
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