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October 17, 2013 Repository 99: Bon Mots | The Science of Scent | Luca Turin on Scent Posted In: bon mots, books, olfactory art

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Continuing my olfactory research and armchair scent travel, I just completed the Luca Turin book “The Secret of Scent, Adventures in Perfume and the Science of Smell.” Luca Turin is a biophysicist and has a remarkable career in the perfume world designing fragrance molecules for major perfume and flavor companies.

The title of the book is deceiving – the secret of scent remains a secret after reading it. Unlike Mandy Aftel, whose book I also completed last month titled “Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume”, Turin’s book is pure science. While Ms. Aftel fully embraces the romance, the lore and the mystery that is fragrance providing recipes and historical anecdotes, Turin presents a long list of molecular formations taking up three pages on his opinion that scent has “nothing to do with sex or memory”. Dear god, really? Sexual attraction and memory are not quantifiable, hence a scientist’s allergic reaction to the topic. He tried to make a case for it, but it simply doesn’t make sense – as animals we know implicitly that scent does trigger memory, and contributes to our sexual proclivities.

His sense of humor and ease with analogies are quite nice throughout the book given the dry subject matter of chemistry. My favorite was a passage he wrote about the periodic table of elements. As a member of the Math and Science Team in high school, this was a particularly fitting passage for me:

Everyone who shares a fondness for the periodic table thinks of it differently. I see it as a sort of class photograph. Fat guys at the bottom, thin ones at the top, arranged from left to right by temperament, with the placid types (eight electrons) at the far right, seated just next to the seven-electron psychopaths. The recklessly generous one-electron types are safely at far left, and the well-rounded individuals, those who should (and did) go far in life, somewhere near the middle.

In sum, if you are interested in the soft side of scent, the history and alchemy of it, I recommend Aftel’s book. If you are a scientist hoping to share your knowledge with a lay audience, this is a good style of prose to emulate. Sorry, no secrets revealed.

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