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

4.15  ·  Rating details ·  1,777 ratings  ·  225 reviews
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 w ...more
Paperback, 352 pages
Published February 10th 2004 by Random House Trade (first published 2002)
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Petra X's driving in a Mustang GT to Key West
I bought a new scent back in mid-February, then I got coronavirus and although my sense of smell has come back, somewhat, I still can't smell in it what I liked so much back then. I love perfumes, but am very conservative about them, I hardly ever try a new one, I stick to the ones I love and that people love on me and ask me what I'm wearing. Chanel Allure and Comptoir sud Pacifique's Vetyver Haiti are my two favourites and luckily I can still smell them. Or perhaps I have the memory of them.

Feb 12, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Aug 13, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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
Feb 24, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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.
Jan 17, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating and also extremely worrying if the state of peer reviewed science is really as described in this book.
Left Coast Justin
Jul 10, 2016 rated it liked it
This book was worth reading, but there were some things about the presentation that prevented it from true greatness.

The subject matter was quite interesting -- kudos to Mr. Burr, who met the book's subject on a train and realized there was a great story to be told. Also, unlike many other topics in science writing, this isn't a story I've read a hundred times before.

Here, we meet Luca Turin, who both by training and temperament is an expert on smell. He knows more about fragrance than any pers
Dec 09, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
Mar 18, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Geoffrey Szuszkiewicz
Dec 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Beautifully written book that is a real page turner, reading more like a mystery novel than a nonfiction book about smell. The main character, Turin reminded me of Rick, from Rick and Morty. This made for an entertaining read and a complete skewering of the infallibility of the scientific method. This book offered insight to how science research really gets done, what it means to challenge the status quo, what goes into perfume making, and how we smell things.
Jun 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
When I read nonfiction, I often find myself looking things up on Google Image Search. When I read an art book earlier this year (My Love Affair with Modern Art: Behind the Scenes with a Legendary Curator), half the joy was looking up every artist the author mentions. With Neil Gaiman's Sandman series of comics, I would often use Wikipedia to bring me up to snuff with the historical figures he had turned into characters. We live in a lovely era of technology where we can supplement what we read w ...more
Laura  Yan
Jan 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
two things you should know about me: 1. i took an AP chemistry class in high school, which i passed purely because i did all the homework even if i never grasped any of the concepts and 2. i'm newly obsessed with perfume. the best way for me to get into a new hobby is of course, through reading, so i winded up reading the emperor of scent, about the legendary luca turin, a sort of mad scientist with a black sheep theory on olfactory receptors and an influential, eccentric perfume critic with a b ...more
Nov 23, 2009 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
i was a little disappointed that it was mostly about the subject's academic paper/new theory of scent being accepted/submitted/reviewed/rejected in various journals than about the history of various perfumes and their scent notes. At points it gets a bit too chatty with the reader, inviting disbelief and surprise, etc... the "dear reader" tactic is off-putting to me, in non-fiction. The pages of formulae are a bit dull, even for one as fond of chemistry as i am.
i shall be looking for other work
marissa  sammy
May 02, 2008 rated it it was ok
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. ...more
Dec 21, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, perfumes
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. ...more
Oct 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A book on smell? I suppose that could be interesting...Is what I said to myself when I picked this up on a whim at a used book store. My god, what a gem!

It follows the story or Luca Turin, a curious, odd, intelligent, difficult, stubborn, quirky man and his theory that our noses use the vibrations of chemical bonds to detect odor. This totally goes against the prevailing theory that smell is determined by the shape of the molecule. The book is as exciting as any Jason Bourne story with Turin on
Luca Turin is a fascinating man. This book was not. I could only make it about 1/3 through.

Most of it was drama surrounding his theory of scent working its way through the scientific political machine, as well as a fair bit of chemistry and physics (my head is not currently in the right place for chemistry and physics).

Perhaps if I was still involved in my old pastime of perfume collecting, I'd have more interest. The quotes from Turin were by far the best and most worthwhile parts to read.
Oct 22, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Stephen Dole
Jul 03, 2014 rated it liked it
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
Sep 05, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
Jen Grogan
Jul 30, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: nonfiction, science
This was recommended to me by a friend when she found out that I collect perfume oils, so I ordered it from the library sight unseen and was quite surprised when it turned out to be about only 30% about perfume, 50% about academic and scientific politics, and 20% about avant-garde biophysics.

I loved the parts about perfume. Since I'm not much interested in personality plays about how very oppressed a given scientist is because The Establishment won't accept his theories, the rest was not much t
Mar 22, 2020 rated it really liked it
Better than I expected. Highly readable with interesting insights into history, biophysics, the fragrance industry, academic politics surrounding getting published by top-tier publications, especially those that challenge orthodoxy that is decades entrenched.
Jun 11, 2008 rated it it was ok
Shelves: research
Too much chemistry, too little scent.
Mar 05, 2011 rated it really liked it
I learned so much! Hurray for nonfiction.
N. N. Santiago
Jan 03, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science-and-tech
Very well written across a broad span of worlds, and a thoroughly depressing insight into the politicking world of modern academic science.
Jun 29, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Magnificent! Funny, scientific, unceasingly fascinating.

One of the best science books I've read in a long time.
Jul 03, 2020 is currently reading it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Warmly recommended by Heying and Weinstein.
Sep 05, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I had read the English versions of the perfume guides that Dr. Luca Turin and Ms. (Dr.?) Tania Sanchez had written. This book added a lot of background on Dr. Turin's history and personality. Apparently the scientific field that Dr. Turin was working in has a terrible peer review process. Also, in general it seems that the people who had spent many years believing in a different theory weren't at all willing to consider Dr. Turin's theory. I would have thought that scientists could be more objec ...more
Angus Mcfarlane
Dec 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Science is not about consensus. Not at its core. It is not democratic - at least not in the sense that the validity of a theory can be determined by a popular vote. In principle it should be egalitarian, discerning truth regardless of the status of the person offering their proof and judged on the merit of theory's coherence to reality. It is, however, social, moreso than many would like to admit and in sharp tension with the ideals it aspires to. For this reason, the climate consensus approach ...more
David A. Woodbury
Oct 25, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I seldom give five stars to anything, but four stars mean I am hugely grateful that I found it, whether it's a restaurant, a book, or anything else that seeks my rating. This story is fascinating. As a biologist myself I had no problem following the science including the chemistry and physics. But the story can be followed without stumbling over the explanations of those details. Luca Turin, the Emperor, is a maverick and eccentric and is appropriately brilliant and frustrating to others. There ...more
Jun 19, 2018 rated it liked it
I wanted to like this. I first heard of it (from a source whose thoughtfulness I respect) as an engaging example of how resistant the scientific community is to even self-evident truth.

Initially some of the cutesy descriptions of physical phenomenon grated, but then I warmed to them (the most notable example is the description of spectroscopy in Chapter II). I enjoyed the early descriptions of Turin's collaboration with Stewart (where Stewart's role was simply to listen to Turin and swat down id
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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.

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