Women’s Wear Daily
04.20.2014
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Sixth Scents

NEW YORK — Of all the senses, smell remains the most mysterious. After all, if everyone understood the magic of perfume, how would those precious liquids retain their allure? As a man blessed with a sense of smell so highly developed that it...

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Chandler Burr

Chandler Burr

Photo By Pete Carey

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NEW YORK — Of all the senses, smell remains the most mysterious. After all, if everyone understood the magic of perfume, how would those precious liquids retain their allure? As a man blessed with a sense of smell so highly developed that it keeps the world’s biggest perfume houses in a tizzy, Luca Turin would make a great subject for a book. But as a scientist who challenges all the chemical and biological assumptions on which theories of smell are based, his story becomes the stuff of legends.

In "The Emperor of Scent" (Random House), author Chandler Burr merges Turin’s worlds, telling the story of the scientist with the extraordinary sense of smell and his radical theory with the racing breathlessness of a whodunit.

"He has the most other-worldly sense of smell," says Burr, who met Turin as the two waited for the Eurostar on a platform at the Gare de Nord in 1998. "He has smells in his head like Matisse had color."

He also has an amazing ability to turn those smells into language. For Turin, tuberose is a "black rubber flower." Tommy Hilfiger’s scent, Tommy, is Prokofiev’s "First Symphony," and the milky tang of Gucci’s Rush, which he loves, is "like an infant’s breath mixed with his mother’s hairspray."

His sweet talk won over the perfume industry, but, as has been the case for most radical thinkers, in the scientific community, Turin had a hard time convincing skeptics — and in the scientific community, everyone’s a skeptic — that his ideas about smell can hold up. Turin’s controversial theory proposes that the nose recognizes molecules by the vibration of their molecular bonds — not, as is commonly thought, by their molecular shape. If Turin’s right, everything we think we know about smell will change, and Turin will probably land a Nobel Prize.

Chapter by chapter, the good doctor — a biophysicist by trade — argues his case. He serves up caraway and mint as evidence. He wafts samples of borane, a toxic, explosive rocket fuel, in his lab at the University College London. He cracks the mystery of Chanel No.5 and its aldehyde chains, that smell alternately of waxy candles and of mandarin orange. Over 20 years, he travels from the Côte d’Azur to North Carolina to Paris to Bombay to Lisbon, chasing down evidence to make his case.
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