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

4.15  ·  Rating details ·  1,696 ratings  ·  212 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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Average rating 4.15  · 
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 ·  1,696 ratings  ·  212 reviews


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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.
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.
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.
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
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
Cerise
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
...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
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.
Gianna
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.
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
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
Katey
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.
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
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
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
Oren
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.
Sylvie
Jun 11, 2008 rated it it was ok
Shelves: research
Too much chemistry, too little scent.
Monica
Mar 05, 2011 rated it really liked it
I learned so much! Hurray for nonfiction.
Bibliovoracious
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.
Emilie
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 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
Kristian Holte
Oct 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The story of Luca Turin contains complex, but highly useful lessons. As a laymen I thoroughly enjoy the chemical descriptions in the books, which are elegantly woven into an exciting narrative. The book poses a number of questions, which I'm still contemplating the answers to.

Why do we keep believing that scientists are not governed by the basic human principle of self-interest?

Why do Luca Turin and the author seem to expect help from the established scientific community?

Is Luca Turin a hero or
...more
JP
Jul 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science, non-fiction
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
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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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