The Emperor of Scent: A Story of Perfume, Obsession, and the Last Mystery of the Senses
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The Emperor of Scent: A Story of Perfume, Obsession, and the Last Mystery of the Senses

4.15 of 5 stars 4.15  ·  rating details  ·  1,060 ratings  ·  153 reviews
For as long as anyone can remember, a man named Luca Turin has had an uncanny relationship with smells. He has been compared to the hero of Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume, but his story is in fact stranger, because it is true. It concerns how he made use of his powerful gifts to solve one of the last great mysteries of the human body: how our noses work.

Luca Turin can dis...more
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published January 21st 2003 by Random House (first published January 1st 2003)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 2,200)
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David
Ever since I heard that the NYT had its own perfume critic, I've had a kind of love-hate relationship with Chandler:

"In Dior Homme, its perfumer, Olivier Polge, has used a light, assured, masterly touch to turn out an iris that has the grace of a Japanese maple and the careful, muscular cool of a leopard.

Béthouart has worked magic here, taking Versace’s genetics — its petulant Italian machismo — and adding technical virtuosity (the stuff diffuses perfectly on the skin) to create the scent you’d
...more
Peggy
Here we sit at the dawn of the 21st century. Science has figured out the basics and is now just working on the details, right? Would it surprise you to learn that, in this day and age, we have no idea how smell works? The accepted theory is that smell works when receptors in the nose recognize the shape of a molecule. However, even dedicated Shapists recognize that this doesn’t happen all the time. The Emperor of Scent is the story of Luca Turin, a biologist who has proposed a radical new theory...more
Jane
This book is about a extraordinary man (who wrote the Perfume Guide I just read), but more so, about the excitement of scientific exploration and the barriers to science imposed by its own scholarly establishment. With his multi-disciplinary expertise, quirky perspective, and rule-flaunting, scientist and perfume expert Luca Turin had an uphill battle getting recognition for his most astonishing and convincing data. A great read.
Kate
Fascinating and also extremely worrying if the state of peer reviewed science is really as described in this book.
Susan
As I love scent, I just loved this book. It was an amazing combination of information on Luca Turin ( whose book on perfumes is a true classic), on perfume, on the scientific method, and on the world of "smell" science. Some of it was slow going for me - who has no science - and I would have to read and reread sections, but the description of Turin the man and scientist and of perfumes were
wonderful. I did some subsequent research to discover the current status of the vibrational frequency vs. m...more
Stephen Dole
An interesting and worrying look at science in today's commercial age. Although the book attempts to explain the science behind Turin's theory, I personally found it difficult to grasp more than the basic concepts. However, I am an English major, not a scientist! And the science is not necessarily the most important part of the book.

Far more vital to the story that a Burr is telling is the reactions of other scientists. In a form of learning which relies greatly on peer-review for it's promotion...more
Gianna
The content is informative and interesting. However, the writing in this book, compared to Perfect Scent, is poor. Toward the end, Burr is basically reproducing Turin's emails without offering interpretation or discussion. This style may work in news reporting, but I expect more from a book.
Suzanne
Very absorbing reading. I have always been very sensitive to smells of any kind, but only in the last couple years have I started to wonder what makes things smell the way they do. Following that inquiry I did some research and found that what we smell are molecules, so basil smells similar to certain mints, and rosemary smells a little like mugwort, because they contain some (but not all) of the same molecules. Having learned that much was already like opening a new door in a huge and beautiful...more
Cait
Feb 02, 2009 Cait rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people who like science, first-year biophysicists
This book tells the story of Luca Turin and his wacky idea about how your nose actually works. It's a very slow build for me, as there were about ten chapters that followed the following pattern: Turin hypothesized something, put off testing it for fear it would disprove his beautiful theory, finally ran the experiment, which did not disprove his theory, then tried to share this with the greater scientific community and they ignored him. Rinse, repeat.

It's an unfortunately honest look at the sci...more
marissa
While I loved the initial reels of this book -- the gloriously chewy descriptions of the perfumes, so sensual I read them over and over before moving on -- all the scientific stuff and chemical components lost me. It seems I didn't really care about the scientist's quest for scent so much as his appreciation of it.
Monica
I learned so much! Hurray for nonfiction.
Alicia
Just this minute finished it.

What is it about?
1. How does our nose distinguish one scent from another? The answer is complicated and very controversial. Our hero discovers, or refines, a theory that the nose senses the vibrations of electron bonds. Lots and lots of chemistry and physics discussion, most of which after a preliminary grapple, lays me flat while the referee counts to 10. The ability to taste, by the way, is dismissed in a sentence or two as scent receptors on the tongue, which I su...more
Elsje
Briljant boek!

Het boek draait om de zoektocht naar de biofysische werking van het reukzintuig. Razend interessante en originele ideeën en experimentele opzetten om je vingers bij af te likken. Telkens kom je een klein stukje meer te weten van de puzzel die geurherkenning is. Dit klinkt allemaal heel wetenschappelijk en moeilijk, maar nee!

Het wordt namelijk beschreven als ware het een whodunnit: heerlijk! De wetenschappelijke wereld is net het gewone leven met zijn vriendschappen en steun versus...more
Rusty
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Dave Johnson
a really wonderful, page-turning, and fascinating glimpse into the cliquish world of science and the peer review process. ultimately, it's about a man who stumbles across a completely new theory of scent that makes more sense than the more commonly accepted one, only to be chastised by his fellow peers of science--for only God knows why. i already knew a fair bit about Luca Turin, having watched a presentation he did on scent on a TED talk. some of that info is in this book, but this obviously d...more
Mainon
Mar 04, 2010 Mainon rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone who enjoys non-fiction, really
Okay, wow. I absolutely loved this book. It had a little something for every part of me that wants something different in a book: there was science, real honest-to-God science, for the snobby intellectual , there was scandal and affrontery for the secret scandalmonger, there was talk of perfumery and the haute couture houses for the girly fashionista, there was exploration of research, development, and business decisions for the pragmatist, there was skewering of the peer-review process for the...more
Nicki
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Martin
Excellent. A fascinating read. The protagonist, Luca Turin, is an interesting character, and the science and philosophy discussed are first rate and engaging.

If you think that science is a community based strictly on merit and the challenging of establish(ment)ed belief is the key to advancement, this book will reveal how wrong you are. Science is as full of bias, territorial-ism, narrow minded conservatism, self preservation and politics as any other endeavor. Burr blows the lid off of the pro...more
Mara
Oct 19, 2007 Mara rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: science wonks and people who like to smell good
Shelves: nonfiction
The Columbia professor in this book, Richard Axel, who won the Nobel Prize for his work in smell and the same guy who gets so much flak from genius(?)/crazy(?) "Emperor of Scent" Lucas Turin for supposedly being wrong, was known to Nate when he was a graduate student there, so that added an extra dimension of interest to me on top of an already fascinating book. It will come as no surprise to anyone actually working in scientific research that the pursuit of "truth" is not nearly as important as...more
Austin
A great recommendation from my friend Carly. This book is fascinating and, at times, frustrating.

The subject of the book is Luca Turin, currently a professor of biomedical engineering at MIT. He is also one of the world's foremost reviewers of perfume. He becomes fascinated with the idea of how molecules are converted into the sensation of scents at the molecular level. The equivalent work in sight, hearing, taste and touch was done decades ago, but olfaction remains robustly debated.

Luca Turi...more
Jae
This was fantastic, one of the best books I've read this year. An non-fiction account of a scientist's attempt to determine how we smell things (which, hey, was something I thought some scientist somewhere, not me, already knew, but apparently not), with detours into the worlds of perfumery and scientific academia. The writer is incredibly gifted at making what could have been dry scientific theorizing compelling and suspenseful (at various points I was on the edge of my seat, wondering, would N...more
Billfrog
I found myself in the library without any ideas, so I texted my brother for suggestions. He promptly sent me this one, and once again Joe shows great taste.

One of those compelling non-fiction reads, like Pollan or Bronson, but this one manages to make a subject more distant than food or employment (hard science) just as interesting as any summer beach read. Perhaps because it's also about the scientific method and personalities, but it doesn't at all skimp on the parts that, if they don't make...more
Mag
Part physics, part biology, part chemistry, but first and foremost a very well written biography of Turin and his quest for recognition of his theory of smell according to which smell is detected through molecular vibrations. His theory contradicts the well established theory of smell as detection of the shape of molecules.
The book is not only about the theory itself, but also about the reception of it among other scientists, and about how much the process of scientific investigation can fail, s...more
Karen
May 30, 2011 Karen rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Karen by: Francoise Nelles
Shelves: nonfiction, science
Burr balances science, psychology and sociology to tell the story of one man's crusade to describe the mechanics of how we smell. Lucas Turin is a man obsessed with scent. Not only does he weave together the sciences of biology, chemistry and physics in an Ahab-like quest for the secret of how we smell, Turin also collects perfumes from around the world and from a number of decades. Turin, who has a very eclectic intellect, uses references from high culture and low to also write a perfume guide...more
Silvio111
This is a TOTALLY excellent book. Even if you, like I, have never worn or been interested in perfume, you will find this book a delightful introduction to chemistry, told through the lens of the protaganist's obsession with and amazing facility for the composition of perfumes.

Although it will never happen in this lifetime, this book came THIS CLOSE to making me want to study chemistry. (An effect it shares with Alan Bradley's FLAVIA DE LUCE mysteryies for young adults, starting with THE SWEETNES...more
lisa_emily
Dec 05, 2007 lisa_emily rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: perfumistas, lovers of scientist stories
Sometimes the sciences are not as fair and objective as they would like the rest of the world to think. Sometimes radical new ideas, or radically-updated ideas, can be unfairly misunderstood and deigned to the rejected pile.

Some subjects are even considered not "worthy enough" for science, for example, scent. Yet, a viable theory about how another sense works, sight, wins a Nobel Prize. It is a strange world.

Burr describes that strange world of Luca Turin, biophysicist, and smell theorist; and...more
Evelyn
Though I've hated Chandler Burr's fiction (the one novel of his I've read), this book--which documents the struggle of one obscure scientist to gain acceptance and recognition for his revolutionary theory on how our sense of smell works--was terrific. Burr explains the sometimes complex science in clear and engaging ways, and Luca Turin, the 'hero' is an intriguing and memorable character.

I thought the book also captured very well the contentious, jealous, petty, narrow world of research scient...more
Deodand
This was recommended by the smart and lovely blogger of Bois de Jasmin. I've turned into a perfume nerd in the last couple of years. This is a dangerous hobby as it can be expensive!

This book is a heck of a thing: An exciting book about a scientist working in the fields of physics, biology and chemistry. Who could write about such a thing and make it interesting to the layperson? I also enjoyed reading about the struggles involved in peer review, getting funding and just being a scientist doin'...more
Peter
The latest book of the month for Fountain's Book Group. It looks to be a great companion to November's Omnivore's Dilemma. This book is a fascinating look at the perfume industry, and the sense of smell in general. Nonfiction, it has an interesting aesthate and scientist at its center. Enjoying the opening 20 pages... Random quotes: "Odor...contains all the mysteries" (ix), Smell as something both "unlimited and instantaneous" (7.9), "Real men don't [wont] smell things. It's a female thing" (12....more
Constance
I don't understand why this book is so highly rated. It was so muddled - the author's voice was muddled, the characters were muddled, the science explanations were muddled, the overall story was muddled, and I could never figure out exactly what was going on. I pushed myself through half of this long book but I just really can't care any more about it. I liked the idea of reading a book that explained complicated scientific theories, but I don't feel like I learned anything, really.

I don't mean...more
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Chandler Burr is the New York Times scent critic and author of The Perfect Scent, The Emperor of Scent, and A Separate Creation. He has written for the Atlantic and the New Yorker. He lives in New York City.
More about Chandler Burr...
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