Book Review: The Emperor Of Scent

by on 30th of June, 2009 in Inspiring & Thought Provoking
About Anisha Zaveri
Anisha Zaveri is a graduate student of Biology at IISc. An avid reader of biology, she is also an enthusiastic writer on the subject. Presently befuddled with selecting a particle plushy, she has a tightly focused (not!) blog at etc.

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 Turin's eloquence with scents): Read here

(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!

5 thoughts on “Book Review: The Emperor Of Scent”

  1. Anisha,
    First off, I enjoyed the book as well. It was engaging, and the whole "maverick scientist has a radical theory, but the establishment keeps him down" perspective always makes for a good story. Further, there seems to be no denying Turin's own abilities as a professional nose; there was that review of perfumes he published a short while ago which was no less interesting.

    It is towards the end of the book that the first hints that something is quite wrong become apparent, when Burr discussing the scientific community explicitly and its response at the conference in India (if I remember correctly). Knowing many of the people involved, it was hard to see them acting the way Burr proposed. That seemed a bit weird when I read the book, and so when, a few short months later, Keller and Vosshall explicitly tested each and every prominent prediction of Turin's, and found them all wrong, it made a bit more sense. I point you to their article, in Nature Neuroscience 7, 337-338 (2004) with a quote from the abstract "We used psychophysical methods in humans to test this vibration theory of olfaction and found no evidence to support it." While the paper wasn't nearly the page turner the book was, as far as scientific smackdowns go, it is ever so short and sweet.

    While parts of the book were undeniably "fun" to read, there are no shortage of people quite hard at work on the mechanisms underlying olfaction that are actually making progress, rather than relying on the PR capabilities of the publishing industry and popular press. There is always room for an "outsider" to reject everything we think we know and formulate a theory that changes the way we see the world. Fortunately, we have a mechanism to accept or reject such a theory, and the Nature Neuroscience paper make the case quite strongly that Turin won't be headed for a Nobel any time soon, no matter how convincing a case Burr makes.

  2. Anisha says:

    @David:

    Thank you for commenting. I accept your point of view.

    Personally, I didn't want to lose faith in the scientific community & review process (considering I'm about to embark on a PhD myself). Your comment is reassuring.

    The book probably falls in my list of 'scientifically rocky, but fun to read'. Yet, I would still recommend it to everyone.

  3. Chad says:

    I actually worked in an olfaction lab at the time this book was published, so we talked about Turin quite a bit. Turns out, my mentor at the time actually met him after the book was published at a small meeting (I forget exactly what for) and it turns out that even Turin thinks Burr's book made him and his situation out to be something it's not. Turin isn't bitter and doesn't seem to hold a grudge against the scientific community because he knows just how revolutionary his theory is and knows he doesn't have the data to fully back his claims. From what I've read he seems to be slowly working on it through.

    Turin wrote a book 2006 called The Secret of Scent that I (as a biologist) found much more enjoyable than The Emperor of Scent. If you know anything about olfaction you can skip large chunks of the book, but if not it will give you a nice primer to the field. Come to think of it, I should probably read it again…

  4. Sonal and Dilip says:

    Anish,
    Congratulations! one more feather in your cap!very interesting review done, we shall be glad to borrow the book from you.

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