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on 16 May 2008
I was never any good at the theory of physics, biology and chemistry, but this book brought the fascination and excitement of all the practical science experiments back after reading a mere 10 pages. The book, written by an intrigued journalist, describes the story of Luca Turin, a lively Italian biophysicist then researching the olfactory sense (sense of smell).

The author uses the style of an investigative journalist detailing all his meetings with the key protagonists, the two fiercely opposed camps of Shape and Vibration. The Shapists - connotations about "form over function" are not entirely innocent - propagate the theory that our sense of smell is based on molecular shape recognition by our nasal smell receptors. The Shape theory of smell has to date dominated this field of research. The Vibration camp has Turin as its standard bearer. His original research posits that our olfactory sense is based on electron-tunnelling by the nasal smell receptors. The molecules we smell are analysed through a process of biological spectroscopy making use of an electron's natural tendency to tunnel through molecules carrying, in this case, an olfactory perception. The spectroscopy consists of the molecule being "smelled" by the tunnelling electron, and subsequently exhibiting a vibration pattern. The vibration can be represented by a wavelength. Hence, the olfactory bulb in our brain differentiates between smells by matching the resulting objective "olfactory" wavelengths with subjective smell perceptions. If accepted by the scientific community at large - and it is by no way today - Turin's Vibration theory could be worth a Nobel prize.

However, the author fails to give Turin his full credit. In the final chapter, he lists all the attempted interviews of Turin's rabid enemies, the Shapists. Their reaction, seemingly, is to ignore Turin and his theory and not to address the fundamental scientific proof he has put forward in support of Vibration. However, a lack of dialectical argumentation does not imply that the hypothesis posited is therefore true. Worse, Turin's reported current research activity outside his olfactory field of interest would suggest he has given up on establishing Vibration as the new (scientific) truth about smell. Somehow, more elaboration is needed.

This flaw in the book does, fortunately, not detract from the merits of reading about Turin's rather infectious obsession with science. A "touche-à-tout" with wide ranging interests, Turin is colourfully portrayed as a genius who can truly think outside the box, applying concepts laterally across different sciences. In the process, we see why Renaissance man or homo universalis is making a comeback. Specialist scientists, it seems, have become too narrow-minded to see the broader picture. I think it was Pascal who said that man will learn more and more about less and less until one day we will know all about nothing.

And if scientific flamboyance wasn't enough, Burr portrays also Turin the man - a voluble, occasionally narcissistic (I'm sure he checks reviews on Amazon), ever scientifically engrossed, idealistic, badly romancing, humoristic, stereotypical extrovert Italian. Turin's story was waiting to be told, and the book does not disappoint. I'm not big on science, but none of the drawings, none of the formulaic descriptions put me off from reading the book in record time. A thoroughly enjoyable and highly recommended read suitable for all.
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on 19 December 2003
I was never any good at the theory of physics, biology and chemistry, but this book brought the fascination and excitement of all the practical science experiments back after reading a mere 10 pages. The book, written by an intrigued journalist, describes the story of Luca Turin, a lively Italian biophysicist then researching the olfactory sense (sense of smell).
The author uses the style of an investigative journalist detailing all his meetings with the key protagonists, the two fiercely opposed camps of Shape and Vibration. The Shapists – connotations about “form over function” are not entirely innocent – propagate the theory that our sense of smell is based on molecular shape recognition by our nasal smell receptors. The Shape theory of smell has to date dominated this field of research. The Vibration camp has Turin as its standard bearer. His original research posits that our olfactory sense is based on electron-tunnelling by the nasal smell receptors. The molecules we smell are analysed through a process of biological spectroscopy making use of an electron’s natural tendency to tunnel through molecules carrying, in this case, an olfactory perception. The spectroscopy consists of the molecule being “smelled” by the tunnelling electron, and subsequently exhibiting a vibration pattern. The vibration can be represented by a wavelength. Hence, the olfactory bulb in our brain differentiates between smells by matching the resulting objective “olfactory” wavelengths with subjective smell perceptions. If accepted by the scientific community at large – and it is by no way today – Turin’s Vibration theory could be worth a Nobel prize.

However, the author fails to give Turin his full credit. In the final chapter, he lists all the attempted interviews of Turin’s rabid enemies, the Shapists. Their reaction, seemingly, is to ignore Turin and his theory and not to address the fundamental scientific proof he has put forward in support of Vibration. However, a lack of dialectical argumentation does not imply that the hypothesis posited is therefore true. Worse, Turin’s reported current research activity outside his olfactory field of interest would suggest he has given up on establishing Vibration as the new (scientific) truth about smell. Somehow, more elaboration is needed.
This flaw in the book does, fortunately, not detract from the merits of reading about Turin’s rather infectious obsession with science. A “touche-à-tout” with wide ranging interests, Turin is colourfully portrayed as a genius who can truly think outside the box, applying concepts laterally across different sciences. In the process, we see why Renaissance man or homo universalis is making a comeback. Specialist scientists, it seems, have become too narrow-minded to see the broader picture. I think it was Pascal who said that man will learn more and more about less and less until one day we will know all about nothing.
And if scientific flamboyance wasn’t enough, Burr portrays also Turin the man – a voluble, occasionally narcissistic (I’m sure he checks reviews on Amazon), ever scientifically engrossed, idealistic, badly romancing, humoristic, stereotypical extrovert Italian. Turin’s story was waiting to be told, and the book does not disappoint. I’m not big on science, but none of the drawings, none of the formulaic descriptions put me off from reading the book in record time. A thoroughly enjoyable and highly recommended read suitable for all.
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on 20 February 2014
Chandler Burr writes beautifully about perfume. If only he would stick to it... When he strays off the subject onto anything else, he is excruciatingly bad and pretentious. This book charts the attempts of Luca Turin to have his theory of how smell works accepted by the scientific establishment. Burr is a complete convert: I, not being a chemist, am not so sure. But a very interesting read about perfume and smell and chemistry - good for popular science fans, but no match for Turin's own book.
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on 21 November 2015
Buyer beware: this book is about world of science, NOT perfumes!

An avid reader of Turin's perfume reviews, I was aware of his scientific research as well.
Silverbacks of today's science, deprived of their medieval right to burn opponents to death, choose most effective weapon of the Information Age: silence; ignoring the challenger.
Is this in any way relevant to me? After all, so many scientific papers collect the dust in the archives of big corporations...
But, I am affected! I am deprived of wonderful NEW smells that could result if Turin's science was given a chance!

Author is a journalist and is forgiven for sometimes poor writing.

Luca Turin's own book on the subject, "The Secret of Scent" is also available. Compare it to this one.
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Telling the story of Luca Turin, a French scientist who, in the mid-1990s, developed a revolutionary new theory about how we smell, Chandler Burr focuses on the evolution of the theory and why it has not led to a Nobel Prize. Turin, a controversial researcher, posited (and believes he proved) that scent is not determined by the body's ability to recognize the shape of molecules, the accepted explanation of smell. Instead, he believes that vibrations of electrons are recognized by a kind of "spectroscope" in our noses--that atoms with the same vibrations have the same smell even when they come from different elements.
Burr details Turin's experiments and his successful (he believes) searches for proof through the late 1990s. But he also describes Turin's unsuccessful attempts to be published in prestigious scientific magazines, his battles royal with other researchers, some of whom have rejected his ideas without reading his papers, and his disappointments with the "Big Boys," the world's seven biggest makers of perfumes, who would benefit directly if Turin were correct. Ultimately, Burr concludes that the scientific community and its attitudes toward Turin reflect their "scientific corruption, corruption in the most mundane and systemic [sense]."
For whatever reasons, Burr is unsuccessful in getting opposing scientists to discuss Turin's vibration theory in relation to their belief in a molecule's shape as a determinant of smell, and he ultimately presents a book that is biased in favor of Turin's work. By the end of the book, Burr has clearly abandoned any sense of impartiality and become a supporter of Turin. He inserts an Author's Note three-quarters of the way into the book to justify his inability to present an alternative viewpoint, concluding that scientific rejection of Turin's theory is the result of "vested self-interest and bad science."
Turin is clearly a difficult man, however, and his attitudes, reflected in humorous and sarcastic comments about other scientists and their ideas, may well have contributed to his lack of acceptance. Though one of his supporters praises him for being the first person to apply quantum mechanics to a physical problem, he also indicates that Turin's biggest flaw is his impatience. (In fact, Turin has already abandoned this work, moving on to a new project studying energy storage in cells.) Fascinating, though complex in its discussions of biology, chemistry, and physics, the book is also fun to read--the story of a maverick who had a great idea which no one takes seriously, at least not yet. Mary Whipple
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Telling the story of Luca Turin, a French scientist who, in the mid-1990s, developed a revolutionary new theory about how we smell, Chandler Burr focuses on the evolution of the theory and why it has not led to a Nobel Prize. Turin, a controversial researcher, posited (and believes he proved) that scent is not determined by the body's ability to recognize the shape of molecules, the accepted explanation of smell. Instead, he believes that vibrations of electrons are recognized by a kind of "spectroscope" in our noses--that atoms with the same vibrations have the same smell even when they come from different elements.
Burr details Turin's experiments and his successful (he believes) searches for proof through the late 1990s. But he also describes Turin's unsuccessful attempts to be published in prestigious scientific magazines, his battles royal with other researchers, some of whom have rejected his ideas without reading his papers, and his disappointments with the "Big Boys," the world's seven biggest makers of perfumes, who would benefit directly if Turin were correct. Ultimately, Burr concludes that the scientific community and its attitudes toward Turin reflect their "scientific corruption, corruption in the most mundane and systemic [sense]."
For whatever reasons, Burr is unsuccessful in getting opposing scientists to discuss Turin's vibration theory in relation to their belief in a molecule's shape as a determinant of smell, and he ultimately presents a book that is biased in favor of Turin's work. By the end of the book, Burr has clearly abandoned any sense of impartiality and become a supporter of Turin. He inserts an Author's Note three-quarters of the way into the book to justify his inability to present an alternative viewpoint, concluding that scientific rejection of Turin's theory is the result of "vested self-interest and bad science."
Turin is clearly a difficult man, however, and his attitudes, reflected in humorous and sarcastic comments about other scientists and their ideas, may well have contributed to his lack of acceptance. Though one of his supporters praises him for being the first person to apply quantum mechanics to a physical problem, he also indicates that Turin's biggest flaw is his impatience. (In fact, Turin has already abandoned this work, moving on to a new project studying energy storage in cells.) Fascinating, though complex in its discussions of biology, chemistry, and physics, the book is also fun to read--the story of a maverick who had a great idea which no one takes seriously, at least not yet. Mary Whipple
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on 29 August 2010
Anyone approaching this book has a problem; the subject of the book, Luca Turin, is fascinating, his brilliance undoubted, but his skills are difficult to describe to the lay reader. Chandler Burr has some descriptive skills, and manages to explain simply some quite difficult science. The trouble is that he has wrapped it up in a trendy, gossipy, women's magazine style of writing, and an additional, substantial problem is that he has both a tin ear for dialogue, most of which one imagines he is creating, and a liking for prose so purple that it becomes meaningless.

A sample, describing a group eating at a restaurant: "The food arrives en masse." (Food cannot arrive en masse; the phrase describes a group of individuals acting collectively) "trays and steaming platters of it," (ah, the singular 'it' referring to 'food', so the plural implicit in 'en masses' is now discarded) "and much shifting about and many bowls and spoons and plates being set down all at once like hail falling on the table" (Being set down, but then compared with hail falling! eh?) "They" (people not cutlery or plates) "pick up utensils and absorb the food as if by osmosis."
Osmosis, as teenagers in biology lessons learn, is the slow passage of water through a semi permeable membrane from a weaker solution to a stronger. Does Chandler think that osmosis sounds like a word implying speed? Wouldn't it be worth looking it up, and getting it right?

His tendency to prefer a breathless flow of words, of the style encountered in teen fanzines, is a bore throughout, and occasionally he opts for the bizarre: Turin is described sending an email to the editor of a scientific journal, Nick Short. The email is quoted, then three stars like pale grey bullet points across the middle of the page provide a breathing space, a device used throughout the book, then the chapter ends thus: "SHORT said no." Why the caps? What does it mean? Is it another small reason why the book as a whole is such a tiring, and tiresome, read?

Turin's story is a fascinating one, and ongoing. Unfortunately he is very poorly served by "The Emperor of Scent" (whatever that title means, and, incidentally, I have no idea why Amazon has it listed as The Emperor of Scent Enses, unless it is a surreptitious dig at Burr's fussy writing style.)
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on 14 June 2010
A Professor and the Madman approach to describing Luca's uncanny ability to smell and his lifelong obsession to prove how we smell. A fun read on a subject otherwise difficult to digest.......
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on 20 May 2016
Well written, and interesting, but the problem is that the theory of smell proposed by the subject of the book does not stand up well enough.
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on 28 April 2016
I lobe this book, full of information about perception of flavours. it's not an easy reading but worth it. Highly recommended.
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