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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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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.
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