: The Emperor of Scent: A Story of Perfume, Obsession, and the Last Mystery of the Senses
: Chandler Burr
: Random House
Year of Publication
This book focuses on the struggle of Luca Turin
, a scientist and lecturer with a long and very interesting history involving both the cultural and scientific aspects of smells, and the olfactory
sense in general. It is written by Chandler Burr
, an excellent author who has also written A Separate Creation
, a work about the scientific evidence for a genetic explanation of homosexuality. The Emperor of Scent
, though, focuses exclusively on Luca Turin
, and rarely strays.
Turin's strong interest in a number of curious and seemingly-unrelated scientific subjects--olfaction, quantum physics, microbiology, chemistry, electrochemical engineering, and even some internal medicine--is significant to his story because he is among a very few people who study the details of science outside of their own formal discipline, (in Turin's case, olfaction).
Turin has proposed for the last several decades that the established theory of olfaction is not correct, and that he has a much better theory on how olfaction happens. The tradition-bound, reigning theory, the "Shape Theory" (or "Shape" for short) basically says that humans smell scents by gauging the shape of fragrant airborne molecules, and transmitting this data to the brain via the olfactory bulb. Extensive data had been gathered and documented over the years, showing that molecules do indeed dock on the olfactory bulb in the nostrils. So the idea that molecular shape determines smell made sense, since shape plays a significant part in most other molecular processes in biology. There seemed to be no reason to question this well-established theory.
No reason, that is, except that it doesn’t fit the facts at all! Since the early 1980s, Luca Turin has encountered two categories of examples that, when combined with the lack of evidence establishing Shape in the first place, make it an altogether absurd idea. Those two categories of examples are:
- molecules which are of essentially identical shape, but smell radically different
- molecules whose smells are indistinguishable, but whose shapes are radically different.
Both of these kinds of examples make the long-reigning Shape theory of olfaction
Turin’s interdisciplinary position, and his refusal to stay tightly confined to a single specialty in science, are crucial to his discovery of a new theory of olfaction. The author of The Emperor of Scent, Chandler Burr, writes that in Turin "a thousand irrelevant facts converged in an instant."(p.56) His cross-disciplinary scientific education (i.e., his simultaneous detailed knowledge of biology, chemistry, AND physics) is nearly unheard of in the scientific community.
Beginning in the 1980s, Turin proposed a few improvements on a very old theory of olfaction which had once been considered and rejected by the scientific community. The Vibrational Theory of Olfaction ("Vibrations") had been proposed in a crude form in the 1930s by two other scientists, but because the theory as stated left some things unexplained, it was rejected. Soon thereafter, Shape became the theory de rigueur, and there was virtually no turning back. The problems with Shape were always mentioned in footnotes in peer-reviewed journals.
Modern science is not immune to political and financial influences any more than it was in Galileo's day. Turin's story and his struggle to get published in a reputable scientific, peer-reviewed journal is a testament to that. Believe it or not, the industry for olfaction is enormous and powerful, and ruled by three behoemoths, one of which is International Flavors and Fragrances. It's a bigger business than you might think. In addition to perfume and cologne, (nearly all of which, by the way, are contracted out by fashion designers to the "Big Three", and are alone are an enormous business), artificial smells are added to detergents and other cleaning products, candles, food, beverage, and even many products that most people don't buy because of the smell alone, like laptops, automobiles, writing ink, and even some clothing.
Many of the big-shot scientists who had published previous research on olfaction are actually employed by those large corporations like International Flavors and Fragrances. And even though those scientists had yet to come up with any method of predicting how a molecule will smell before it's produced, they have, in Turin's view, duped their multi-billionaire employers into thinking that their talent is needed. Their careers depend on them being right; they have a vested interest in defending their theories. And they are the establishment. It was Turin vs. Everyone Else.
That's the political problem. But the main scientific, factual problem Turin faced in advocating the Vibrations theory was a single, simple exception, which on its surface, seems to refute Vibrations and endorse Shape: The problem of enantiomers.
As mentioned above, the nose contains receptors for fragrant molecules to dock. Once docked, Turin proposed that a sub-atomic (quantum!) process takes place: electrons are actually sent through the molecule in a process known as electron tunneling. This quantum process effectively gauges the wavelength of the molecule, and then triggers a series of electrical and chemical reactions (translating back and forth from electrical to chemical to electrical signals), instantly resulting in an electrical signature being sent to the olfactory cortex in the temporal lobe of the brain. The reason the old Vibrations theory was dismissed was because some molecules, called enantiomers seemed to obviate the Vibrations theory. Enantiomers are molecules which are, for our purposes, 'mirror images' of each other, and as such, they have inverse shapes. But they have exactly the same wavelength because they are composed of exactly the same atomic particles, arranged in a different way. And yet enantiomers are known to smell somewhat different from one another, despite having the same vibrational wavelength. It seems to just throw the Vibrations theory out the window, right?
Well, Turin offers a simple and plausible explanation to overcome the problem: the way a molecule docks in the nose--the portion of the molecule that actually binds temporarily to the nostril--determines the portion which will be gauged for wavelength. So by putting one molecule in 'forwards' and its cousin in 'backwards', different sections of each molecule are exposed, and the resulting data sent to the olfactory bulb will be different.
Turin knew what he was up against if he wanted his improved Vibrations theory (which I’ll call hereafter "Improved Vibrations") to be taken seriously. So he did his homework: years and years of exhaustive research, documenting example after example of molecules which violated Shape, and which were perfectly explained by Improved Vibrations. He tried to publish his work in various reputable scientific journals, but the peer referees would have none of it. They rejected his work time and again with little explanation and seemingly no reason. Vibrations was dismissed long ago, the olfaction-science heavyweights would say. Why revisit a theory we’ve already 'disproved'?
A good answer, of course, is that Turin's was a NEW theory, with more detail, and with explanations for the problems with the older, simpler Vibrations theory. It didn't matter; they lumped all of it together into one bad theory.
The Emperor of Scent documents the endless rejection, career turmoil, and personal trauma Turin endured in his quest to 'get published' in the best possible journal. Knowing that the scientific industry--and that's what it surely is, an industry--would take him more seriously the more reputable the journal, he sat on several offers for publication in lesser-known journals and held out for the jackpot: the highly-esteemed journal, Nature.
After decades of struggle and the publication of Chandler Burr's layman-oriented Emperor of Scent (whose detailed account of Nature editors engaging in professional mistreatment of Turin must must have left the journal with a public relations problem), a decision was recently made at Nature to publish Turin’s paper. So in the end, Turin does indeed 'win', and Improved Vibrations is on its way to full acceptance now. But the lengths to which Turin had to go to simply have his theory considered and wholly reviewed by the scientific community were incredible and absurd.
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