With the exception of a handful of bestselling novels, books about fragrance rarely appeal to audiences outside the perfume community, and seldom raise controversy among their readers. The opposite is true for Chandler Burr’s The Emperor of Scent, which caused both a stampede and a stir as it hit the bookstores in 2003.
The Emperor of Scent tells the true story of Luca Turin, lecturer in biophysics (1993-2000) at University College London. Turin has developed a new theory of smell, which he attempts to bring under the attention of the academic community. His ideas on how smell works are radically different from those of the ‘established’ researchers in the field, and go against all principles by which manufacturers produce synthetic odorants. As Turin submits his paper to the renowned magazine Nature, his hopes for glory are clouded by a mist of opposition: the road to recognition proves to be long and arduous.
The resistence to Turin’s theory is the main theme in the second half of the book, aptly entitled ‘War’. Burr comments:
“I began this book as the simple story of the creation of a scientific theory. But I continued it with the growing awareness that it was, in fact, a larger, more complex story of scientific corruption, corruption in the most mundane and systemic and virulent and sadly human sense of jealousy and calcified minds and vested interests.” (p. 228)
A controversy is born. As the book goes public, industry insiders argue that Burr is too partial to Turin’s side of the story. They accuse him of glorifying Turin’s persona, and categorically dismiss the author’s suggestion that a conspiracy is at play.
Burr’s unquestioning loyalty towards Turin will indeed be problematic to the critical reader, and the rather ballsy tone that runs through the book may not be to everyone’s liking either. But despite all this, The Emperor of Scent deserves the credit it received from the press and the general public alike: given the scientific complexity of the subject matter it is a surprisingly accessible book, larded with lots of enjoyable anecdotes on the use and creation of perfumes. Not to be missed.
Chandler Burr is a journalist with a particular interest in perfume. He frequently writes about fragrances for the New York Times, and is currently working on a book on the creation of scent. His website is chandlerburr.com.