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

4.13  ·  Rating details ·  1,521 Ratings  ·  188 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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David
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
...more
Peggy
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
Jane
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.
Kate
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.
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.
Jacob
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
Cait
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
...more
Susan
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
...more
Gianna
Dec 21, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: perfumes, non-fiction
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.
Elaine
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
...more
Suzanne
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
...more
Silvio111
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
...more
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.
Monica
Mar 05, 2011 rated it really liked it
I learned so much! Hurray for nonfiction.
David 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
Benjamin
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
...more
Sabrina Chapadjiev
Jun 01, 2018 rated it liked it
This book is half of a good book. The lead is real life nose impressario, Luca Turin, who is a fascinating and delicious character of wit, intelligence and precision. Burr illustrates Turin's maniacal obsession with smell, his insatiable curiosity and his 'derelict' behavior in institutions that thrive on institutionalized manners and academic nepotism. When he focuses on Turin, it's really quite a thrilling and lovely read.

Where he gets lost. ALL OF THE SCIENCE. Oh my, so much of it. Sure, I un
...more
JP
Jul 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, science
This the story of a polymath scientist who connected his knowledge of biology, chemistry and physics, his appreciation for scent, and expressive writing skills. The result, driven by innate curiosity, was an updated theory about humans smell. Chandler's writing is clear and enjoyable, as are the masterful excerpts by the scientist turned perfume guide author. The prose is excellent and the story captivating, but more than anything, what it conveys is a disappointing mindset of established scient ...more
Elizabeth
Jan 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I thought this was a work of fiction and was pleasantly surprised that it was totally different than what I thought it would be. It's about Luca Turin and his battle with scientists and Nature magazine to get them to listen to his ground-breaking theory about how we smell. There's the folks on the side of shape as a way to explain how we smell. They are biologists, or chemists, or physicists. They believe that the shape of molecules determines how we smell, and they have spent their entire lives ...more
Wendy
Nov 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
Who knew that the way smell works was such a divisive subject?

This book follows a man named Luca Turin whose interest in a number of different scientific ideas and various hobbies led to him developing a new theory about the way we smell. The old idea is all about shape, but Turin seems to be on to something big with his idea of vibration.

Even though I'm not a huge fan of perfumes, the descriptions that Turin gives them and his use of language made me want to go out and smell all the things.

Just
...more
Steve
Aug 16, 2017 rated it really liked it
Turin, the subject of the biography, sounds like a fascinating person. Sadly, his professional experience is a case study of what is wrong with the scientific process today: human frailties abound. But that's true of every human endeavor.
His very science-focused life veers into the mysterious world of perfumery and opens a window into it that helped me appreciate why people like perfume even though I've never appreciated it before. I particularly enjoyed reading his descriptions of scents, which
...more
Jen Grogan
Jul 30, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: science, nonfiction
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
...more
Christine Rothrock
Dec 11, 2017 rated it really liked it
Ok, now this was a really interesting book! Luca is a very essentric guy, the kind of guy I'd seek out to befriend. Lol. My favorite part is when he keeps trying to submit his research to Nature magazine to get published and he was rejected every time. The arguments he had with the people on peer review were making me laugh out loud. Plus, the whole concept of scent is fascinating to me. Good read if you like science or biography. Note: the first half of the book is very science heavy, but it is ...more
Quiver
Dec 30, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: a-english, favorites
This book challenged my understanding of my own sense of smell. Whereas vision and hearing are thoroughly taught at school, as are taste and touch to a lesser extend, smell is almost subtly swept under the rug. So how do we smell? What is the established theory?

We have "Shape-ists" on the one hand, and "Vibration-ists" on the other. Shape is the more commonly accepted theory, even though it is not consistent and complete. But regardless of where the truth about the olfactory system lies, seeing
...more
Alicia
May 07, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Linda
Nov 24, 2014 rated it really liked it
Have just reread this book in light of current findings at the University of Surrey. Burr was the New York Times perfume critic from 2006-2010 and now conducts a series of perfume dinners around the world of which there are some videos on his website. During the 8 course taster menu various perfumes are used to enhance each dish such as “Fig Splash” by Marc Jacobs along with a simple fig dish.

At the time this book was written (2004) there were two opposed camps in the quest to understand our sen
...more
J.S.
Jul 11, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: vine, science-nature
I frequently hear people citing science as though it's an unbiased fact to end all debate on an issue. It's a common refrain when it comes to issues such as climate change or (strangely enough) religion. The inference seems to be that something has been PROVEN scientifically and that ALL scientists agree. End of discussion.

Luca Turin was a biologist with an affinity for perfume. He wondered about our sense of smell and began studying chemistry and physics in an effort to better understand how it
...more
Nicki
Dec 12, 2012 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
John
Nov 17, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to John by: Bullseye (Mark Frauenfelder)
Delightful and engrossing.

The book starts off with Burr going through why the traditional explanation of smell cannot work, with the elegance and joy of presenting a great proof. He lays the groundwork, does a sly little digression into how digestion works, then a very reasonable bit about the immune system, and then clicks the pieces home, all together: QED, smell cannot work that way. So. How does it work?! It's great.

It's good writing. Not just putting you back in Turin's shoes as he's, say
...more
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The Brain and Mind: The Emperor of Scent 3 27 Sep 03, 2008 01:19PM  
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28 followers
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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