Getting hooked on a non-fiction book isn’t something that happens often with me.
Non-fiction plods and trudges. However, ‘The Emperor Of Scent‘ by Chandler Burr is breathtakingly unique. It gallops. It has all the elements of a quintessential page turner. And it’s about science too.
It got me so electrified that I repeatedly found myself reading diagonally, reaching a point where I realised I’m not understanding anything because I’m going too fast, and taking a deep breath as I turned the pages back and re-read it.
The book is about Luca Turin’s (a biophysict for want for a better word, biophychemist to be exact) dramatic course of discovery of an alternative theory on how we smell.
I say ‘alternative’ because Wikipedia says so. But personally, I was thoroughly convinced that it is the theory on the mechanism of olfaction.
The theory is based on the bizarre idea that we smell using an electron spectroscope in our nose.
No, I’m not kidding. Yes, it is achievable using proteins. Yes, there are conclusive experiments for the same. No, he hasn’t yet got a Nobel. But you will be convinced that he deserves one when you turn the final page.
Isn’t it strange how we never give an iota of thought to how we smell?
Turin has a quirky, interesting character which absorbs one immediately. He’s passionate to the verge of obsessed. He’s restless. He’s intentionally oblivious to scientific protocol. He dabbles in everything, talks to everyone: Perfume, tracing submarines, electron tunneling, spectroscopy, insulin, transistors. He has thrillingly eloquent descriptions of scents.
And amazingly, it’s this rich soup of ideas, this intended scorning of the scientific boundaries (Physics, Chemistry, Biology), this compulsive desire to investigate just for the sake of investigating, that allows, and is absolutely essential for his theory to have been conceived.
The book also is scattered with all kinds of witticisms, concepts, and ideas that got my neurons tingling. I’m a sucker for scientific analogies. And Chandler Burr generates them as well as anyone.
He likens wave numbers to musical notes. He personifies electrons to explain electron tunneling in a way anyone can understand. Finally, the book also throws light on the myth we have about science and why it isn’t as perfect as we (or I especially) are wont to think of it.
I will have to read the book thrice at least, to enjoy all those tiny subtleties I missed while I stormed through it. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves science.
To conclude, some excerpts:
(Opening lines): Start with the deepest mystery of smell. No one knows how we do it.
(On biological theories): Biological theories are created by pretending to be God. Another way of saying this is you put together a biological theory by reverse engineering the human body. You build a theory by looking at what already is and then try to think up a good reason why it would be that way, and how it would work.
(On Phy, Chem, Bio): It is said that both chemists and physicists study the atom, but chemists mess around with the electrons and physicists pass their time on the nucleus. Biology has now metamorphosed into the study of the gene….This is the historical reason people still say “molecular biology” which is actually a name without any meaning, As if there were any other kind of biology anymore. (This had me giggling for a while)
If you have read this book or are interested in Luca Turin’s work, please drop me a comment.
And/or if you have read a great book that you’d like to review on Bitesize Bio, please drop us a line!
As biochemists, we routinely run SDS-PAGE to analyze our proteins. It can be a repetitive and tedious task to get a “presentable” gel for publication (especially when there are Western blots to follow)… but not if you know the tricks!
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