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

Chandler Burr's The Emperor of ScentWith the exception of a handful of bestselling novels, books about fragrance rarely appeal to audiences outside the perfume community, and seldom raise controversy among their readers. The opposite is true for Chandler Burr’s The Emperor of Scent, which caused both a stampede and a stir as it hit the bookstores in 2003.

The Emperor of Scent tells the true story of Luca Turin, lecturer in biophysics (1993-2000) at University College London. Turin has developed a new theory of smell, which he attempts to bring under the attention of the academic community. His ideas on how smell works are radically different from those of the ‘established’ researchers in the field, and go against all principles by which manufacturers produce synthetic odorants. As Turin submits his paper to the renowned magazine Nature, his hopes for glory are clouded by a mist of opposition: the road to recognition proves to be long and arduous.

The resistence to Turin’s theory is the main theme in the second half of the book, aptly entitled ‘War’. Burr comments:

“I began this book as the simple story of the creation of a scientific theory. But I continued it with the growing awareness that it was, in fact, a larger, more complex story of scientific corruption, corruption in the most mundane and systemic and virulent and sadly human sense of jealousy and calcified minds and vested interests.” (p. 228)

A controversy is born. As the book goes public, industry insiders argue that Burr is too partial to Turin’s side of the story. They accuse him of glorifying Turin’s persona, and categorically dismiss the author’s suggestion that a conspiracy is at play.

Burr’s unquestioning loyalty towards Turin will indeed be problematic to the critical reader, and the rather ballsy tone that runs through the book may not be to everyone’s liking either. But despite all this, The Emperor of Scent deserves the credit it received from the press and the general public alike: given the scientific complexity of the subject matter it is a surprisingly accessible book, larded with lots of enjoyable anecdotes on the use and creation of perfumes. Not to be missed.

Chandler Burr is a journalist with a particular interest in perfume. He frequently writes about fragrances for the New York Times, and is currently working on a book on the creation of scent. His website is chandlerburr.com.

Since 2001, Luca Turin has been the Chief Technology Officer at Flexitral. He writes about fragrance on his blog, Perfume Notes.

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15 Comments

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  1. Anonymous says:

    I must admit that I started reading The Emperor fully intending to read scientific as well as perfume describing parts…but in the end I gave up on science and read perfume related extracts only. There are not that many of those so I cannot pretend I read the book in full. I still have it though, so maybe one day…

  2. Anonymous says:

    I really wish they would republish Le Guide!!!

    Bought the Emperor of Scent and really enjoyed the book,actually thought I would be lost with the science but I was ok.

  3. Anonymous says:

    It was a really entertaining book, mostly due to its really entertaining subject. Chandler's writing was lively, and I thought the science was clearer than most of the pieces I read in mainstream science magazines. I do think it was too one-sided, making it difficult to judge whether Luca's theory was really that much better than the prevailing school of thought. The one chapter about CB's difficulty in getting the other side of the story was a good gesture toward balance, but I still felt the tale had a paranoiac, partisan edge. It was still amusing and informative as all get out, but I did sort of wish to be sold more on the standard party line before being informed that it was all wrong. I've read more now and understand more now, and now I'm convinced that Luca is right, but I wasn't convinced when I finished Emperor of Scent.

    And yes, Le Guide ought to be republished. Online. And searchable. With subscriber access. And English translations, pretty please, since my French is terribly rusty…

  4. Anonymous says:

    Oh yes, I'd like to see a revamped version of Le Guide too… but I'm also looking forward to Turin's forthcoming book.

    I'm sure that Burr's new book will be a great read as well. His Hermès article in the NYTimes looked very promising!

  5. Anonymous says:

    Just a note – the authors of the prevailing theory of olfaction won the Nobel Prize last year. I worked for several years at the journal that published most of their work. I'm not saying their results tell the whole story, but the dismissive/paranoid tone Burr's book sometimes took was a bit absurd. I also have never quite understood why Luca didn't submit the paper to one of Nature's competitors. I'd ask him, but I'm a little afraid to – I'll stick with fragrance queries. :) On the whole, however, it was an enjoyable read.

  6. Anonymous says:

    LizB, I thought Linda Buck and Richard Axel won the Nobel for their groundbreaking work identifying the components and organization of the olfactory system, especially the receptors. I didn't think it was for their theory of olfaction. I could be wrong, but that's what I understand. Luca gives them full props for their receptor work, but his idea concerns exactly how those receptors read the molecules—in other words, what aspect of molecules are responsible for their smell. It's like the difference between identifying the cones and rods in the eye and figuring out that different wavelengths of light correspond to different colors.

    My partially educated guess is that Luca didn't submit his paper to a competitor of Nature's because he was fed up and didn't have the patience to go through the whole process of peer review again because he only anticipated more of the same. Which is too bad. A powerful theory requires a powerful advocate. But I think Luca's own book will have quite a different tone than the Chandler book, so there'll be another angle to consider.

  7. Anonymous says:

    LizB, from what I understand from Burr's book, Nature is basically unrivaled in that field. Turin's paper was in fact published by Chemical Senses in 1996, but they placed it under the heading “Original Research Paper”, meaning that it was not checked by referees.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Tania, you make a good point (re: Buck and Axel) – I should be more careful with my language when discussing such controversial topics. ;)

    I simply felt, when reading the book, that if Nature really did hold onto the paper for as long as they did – suggesting it did come close to getting published – that an equally or almost-equally prestigious specialty journal might've jumped on it. But at the end of the day, I guess we can't say Dr. Turin hasn't gotten his fair share of press and attention. :)

  9. Anonymous says:

    Marcello, Nature is a great journal but by no means unrivalled. :) Science is the US equivalent, and like Nature publishes in all areas of science. Cell, which is also mentioned in Burr's book, is a competitor that publishes only in the life sciences and (obviously) skews toward molecular and cellular biology. Beyond those there are any number of high-ranked specialty journals (meaning that unlike Nature or Science they confine the research they publish to a given field or sub-field of science). Sorry if I'm straying a little off topic. :) Best not to get me started on the issue of peer review… :)

  10. Anonymous says:

    LizB, I wondered that too. Although the chances of publication in another peer-reviewed journal seemed fairly low, given that everyone qualified to review the paper would know that it had been rejected by Nature already. And the BBC documentary probably didn't make Luca any friends in the field.

    My own completely unqualified, armchair-philosopher take on the subject is that a vibration-based smell mechanism would just be more useful. This isn't a point that Luca makes, but it's a way of thinking that appeals to me. The way I see it, the nose is poised below the eyes and above the mouth; one of its primary jobs is to tell us what's good to eat and what's not. Things nourish us or poison us according to their elemental makeup, not because of their shape; molecular shapes are destroyed in the gut's acid. In other words, it would seem more helpful to be able to smell sulfur atoms than it would be to smell tetrahedrons. The receptors in the nose just seem to play a very different role than that played by the receptors inside the body.

    But like I said, I'm no scientist! I've just been at home chewing on what little I've read of this. I think it's also because I think about, say, apple pie more than I think about Shalimar.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Then again, I could be completely insane. Because it just occurred to me that the pills I take probably work on a lock-and-key mechanism. OK, file all this under, “Who the hell knows?” Just read Luca's book when it comes out. ;)

  12. Anonymous says:

    Tania, I know only three things at this point:

    1 That I have no idea how olfaction works, but that it seems to me it has to be combinatorial or else it would be totally inefficient. Fortunately, it seems both the Shapist and Luca agree on that point. I think the vibration theory is very striking and aspects of it seem to make a great deal of intuititve sense. Beyond that I am not going to pretend I remember or ever totally understood the nuances of each argument, since it's been ten years since I took a science class. :)

    2 A research paper that is not peer-reviewed will get roughly no attention from the scientific community.

    3 Luca's theory of chic in The Emperor of Scent is a theory I believe 100%. :)

  13. Anonymous says:

    LizB, I gladly take your word it, I have no competence in that field. I stand corrected.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Luca was having trouble posting to the site yesterday, but he did have this to say when I emailed him:

    < <1) the reason the paper in Chemical Senses was "unrefereed" is because they looked at the four referee reports from Nature and decided to publish and b) that peer review is the process by which peers assess work and does not begin and end with paper submission, but instead continues for years until things are either settled or forgotten.>>

  15. Anonymous says:

    Tania, thanks for adding Luca's comments here :-)

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