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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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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.
Burr, who penned "The Search for the Biological Origins of Sexual Orientation" and regularly contributes to The Atlantic Monthly, takes readers through Turin’s arguments step by step, and makes his theory seem obvious to even the least scientific minds. Burr’s new book, out next week, comes mom-approved, after all. "Sure enough, my mother read this book and she absolutely loved it," says Burr. There may be those in the perfume industry, however, who find it repugnant.

In fighting for his theory, Turin has made enemies within the seven largest perfume companies, which Burr refers to as "the Big Boys," and within the scientific community at large. The BBC loved his ideas and produced a TV special about Turin. Peer reviewers chosen by the scientific journal, Nature, simply loathed his notions. And some of the billion-dollar perfume labs, where Turin was once welcomed, have since closed their doors to him.

Between the shapist and vibrationalist camps of smell theory, "it’s like a theological war," says Burr. "One person says, ‘I don’t think this god exists,’ and the other person says, ‘you couldn’t be more profoundly insulting.’" Of course, the scientists’ passion — and Burr’s own — makes for a good read.

It’s not the book’s only selling point, however. As described by Burr, Turin’s passion for perfume and scent is contagious. "The way I experienced the world fundamentally changed because Luca Turin had given me another sense," says Burr, who spent hours and days smelling thousands of molecules with Turin in the lab, and spent the last four years writing the book. "I hope that is what ‘Emperor’ will do for readers, giving them a sense they didn’t know." Now, Burr will spray himself with Thierry Mugler’s Angel one day and the new Michael Kors fragrance the next, just like Turin, who owns and wears hundreds of perfumes, though he currently favors those made by Patricia de Nicolai.

"It’s as if I used to appreciate, say, the graphic art of a Starbucks ad and I’ve suddenly been introduced to da Vinci," Burr says of his new sensory life.
For his part, since Burr’s reporting left off, Turin has left the university and is now using his theories to produce novel molecules for a new company called Flexitral. One, a molecule called Lioral, smells of lily of the valley and, according to Turin, even enhances one’s sense of smell. "Lioral is quite powerful and smells great, if I may say so myself," Turin notes, "and it has an interesting effect. If you smell Lioral for a few minutes, then smell your glass of wine, the wine has suddenly gone up in price another 15 bucks."

Turin believes that Burr’s book is bound to cause controversy in the closed perfume world, but he’s looking forward to the prospect. "Some people will cheer," he says. "They know I’ve been beavering away at this thing for a long time without getting much of anywhere, and it’s time this thing had a little sunlight on it. My friends who have read the book say it’s going to create quite a ripple."