Biophysicist Luca Turin was born with an incredible sense of smell. He can identify the ingredients of thousands of scents right down to their individual molecules. Turin's study of smell resulted in the revolutionary theory that it's not a molecule's shape but its vibration that produces scent. The implication of these findings was that perfume manufacturers could predict the odor of new molecules without having to prepare and evaluate them, thus saving millions of dollars in developing new fragrances.
Instead of being welcomed by the industry, Turin encountered hostility and ignorance. Author Chandler Burr tells his strange tale in The Emperor of Scent: A Story of Perfume, Obsession, and the Last Mystery of the Senses. If you harbor the notion that perfume-making consists of pulverizing flowers into liquid and adding a dash of this and a dab of that, you'll learn that's not how it's done. The process, as Burr shows, is more complicated. Every year each of the seven big fragrance firms with armies of research chemists working in competitive secrecy makes about 2,000 compounds, any one of which might require a complex and exact blending of more than 100 ingredients.
The author begins the book with the simple story of the creation of a scientific theory, but it becomes a "larger, more complex story of scientific corruption" as he uncovers what he sees as examples of closed minds and vested interests. Burr relates Turin's exasperating effort to publish in the esteemed journal Nature. After a long peer review, his research was rejected by scientists who did not or did not want to understand his work. However, there's hope: a year ago a company was formed to design fragrances using Turin's methods. As to his molecule theory, some people again are daring to whisper the words "possible Nobel." Alan Prince of Deerfield Beach, Florida, is a retired newsman.