(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Of all human senses, smell remains the most elusive in terms of finding a scientific explanation of its mechanism in the body. The Emperor of Scent tells the story of a scientist named Luca Turin, whose two particular gifts, his scientific intellect and his highly refined sense of smell, have combined to lead him to a new theory of how smell operates. The book has two main themes. First, it explains Turin’s theory of smell and the process by which he developed it. Second, the book looks at the way Turin’s theory of smell has been received by the scientific community and by the perfume industry. These interwoven themes raise important issues about the nature of the scientific process, the shifting paradigm from Newtonian biomechanics to quantum physics, and the place of science in Western culture, particularly as popularized by the media.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part, “Creation,” focuses on the evolving process by which Turin pieced together his theory of smell. Author Chandler Burr provides some background about Turin’s development as a scientist. His formative years were spent in Paris, where the freedom to explore, guided by his curiosity, encouraged him in the intellectual habit of connecting disparate scientific ideas. In addition, he possesses a remarkable sense of smell and a passion for perfumes. He has the ability to identify the molecular components of perfumes by a brief hint of their fragrances. He wrote Parfums: Le Guide (1992), a book that remains one of the best descriptions and evaluations of perfumes. The publication of this guide has given him entrée to the chemical laboratories of major perfume companies.

Turin is aware that scientific knowledge about smell is contested. Most scientists favor Shapism, the idea that smell is based on the ability of receptor proteins in the nose to recognize a molecule by its distinctive shape, a mechanism that operates for other human systems, such as the immune system. However, a few scientists, such as Malcolm Dyson of Great Britain in 1938 and the Canadian R. H. Wright in 1977, advanced Vibrationism, the concept that vibration triggers the recognition of smell and that the nose acts like a spectroscope, an instrument that measures and identifies molecular vibrations. The proponents of the two theories are sometimes termed Shapists and Vibrationists.

Burr relates how Turin developed his theory. He had already discovered that proteins conduct electrons and made a now-patented diode out of protein. In pursuing further research on diodes, he read an article about electron tunneling through a molecule and how a spectroscope can identify the molecule by the differential in the vibrational energy level of the electrons as they have moved from one side to the other. He realized that the main problem that had existed with the vibration theory of smell, the seeming impossibility that a human spectroscope reading vibrations could exist in the nose, was biologically possible. “A thousand irrelevant facts converged in an instant . . . he dropped everything else and started working on a new theory of smell.”

Burr explains the various research problems that Turin faced in order to prove his vibrational theory of smell and the experiments he used at each stage. In addition, Burr follows the peer review process of the article that Turin submitted to a leading British scientific journal, Nature. Burr at this point recounts the production process for a documentary on Turin’s theory by the BBC called A Code in the Nose, and he also details the pressure that the BBC applied to speed the article’s publication. Eventually, Nature rejected the article, but Turin then published “A Spectroscopic Mechanism for Primary Olfactory Reception” in Chemical Senses (September, 1996).

Although the battle theme is sounded in Burr’s account during the period when Turin’s article was under review for Nature, the author attempts to escalate the adversarial rhetoric in part 2, “War.” Burr relates Turin’s negotiations with large perfume companies in an effort to gain financial backing to develop a practical application of vibration to predict the smell of perfume molecules. However, no company wanted to risk the investment. Turin lays the blame on the perfume chemists and their fear that his idea would jeopardize their positions. The response of scientists is revealed at an international conference which Turin attended by invitation in December,...

(The entire section is 1839 words.)