Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Book review

I've just read a superb book, The Emperor of Scent by Chandler Burr.
it's non-fiction and though I can't put it solidly among my all-time non-fiction favorites, it's definetly the most absorbing book i've read in a year or so.

At a time when Malcolm Gladwell's unfocused, vague and even sometimes contradictory 'Blink' is the "It" book of the Spring, this one is the real thing: a tight, witty narrative about a science problem, with a terrific protagonist and - here's the key bit - a fantastic mystery.

The subject is the sense of smell and the search to discover how it works, which absolutely no one knows. We know the other four, of course: Sight (rods and cones), touch (potassium pump), taste (buds) and even sound (3 interlocked bones per ear so delicate that they
arguably prove Divine intent) are all taught in junior high. Duh.

But smell? Err... well, see, you've got the molecules, right, and they float up towards your nose, see, and... errr...
Not a clue.

Burr opens the book with the terrific observation that not only do we not know how it is done, but if you compare it to the other body systems most scientists assume are most like smell (digestion and immune system), we shouldn't be able to smell anything at all.

Now THAT'S how you start a book.

Digestion knows how to digest a set number of things - from turnip roots to chicken wings to wine - because over 100,000 years of evolution, the stomach has developed ('selected' in evolutionary terms) a certain number of enzymes to take down food that ancient man ate.
And the very second you eat something on the list, your digestive system (alerted by taste) goes to work. But since cavemen didn't eat, say, plastic - or metal or a million other modern molecules - the stomach doesn't know how to digest it. ever.
Now immunization, which is opposite: it can fend off anything,
including amazingly complex and virulent bugs, that were utterly
unknown prior to 1900. Or yesterday. You can be allergic - a healthy
reaction to strange substances - to almost anything. But the immune
system takes time - a new, crazy strain of flu enters your body and you
get sick for a week, not from the flu but because your immune system is
hashing out the right strategy. eventually, the immune system figures
it out and rids the body of it.
To sum it up, imagine you ingest two things that were discovered in
the 70s: the Ebola virus and a Matchbox Car. Let's say you swallow a
Matchbox Car and contract Ebola on the same day. It will take a few
days, but your immune system will wage a war with the Ebola so violent
that you might die in the battle. Immune systems go down fighting.
But if you live (or even if you don't), that Matchbox Car will sit
in your stomach, untouched, until... well, ya know, it leaves.
The digestive system either works or it doesn't, right away. The
immune system takes all comers, but it needs time.

Not smell. Hold your nose to a bottle of the latest, most complex
molecule produced by a chemical factory, and you will instantly smell
it. No human could have ever smelled this molecule, or anything like
it, before - so evolutionary programming is out. And there is
absolutely no delay for the brain processing it - so much for the body
engineering a response.
So why does Northern New Jersey smell so bad? What the hell is
going on?

If you want to hook me into your book, that's how you write a first
chapter. And Burr did, so i pressed on.

Enter a French/Italian/English professor (he splits his time between
the three) named Luca Turin who is a biologist but is a life-long nut
for perfume. He writes, on his own, a Zagats-style book about the
world's perfume, just because he likes them and realizes suddenly that
no one has ever written anything like it before. In fact, he suddenly
realizes he is one of the world's leading experts on smells, by
default. He meets perfumers, goes to their secret, huge factories and
the more he sees, the more he realizes that the multi-biollion dollar
industry has no idea how they do it - they produce thousands of random
chemicals and hope they find a dozen that smell good.
And then one day, as he thumbs through some odd, forgotten medical
or scientific textbook just for fun, it hits him like the apple hitting
Newton on the head - he knows how smell works. Now he has to prove it.
And off goes the book.

Turin's answer is - wait for it! - complex. Still, as a book likes
this requires, Burr is very good at breaking it down to basic, "the
electrons are the traffic, the lightswitch is the drawbridge"-level
english. But to give you just the slightest hint, Turin concludes that
smell must be like sight and sound rather than digestion and immune
Here's my farthest dive into science-talk: digestion and immune
response is based on the shape of molecules - in the stomach and in the
white blood cells, the body reads, and attacks, the shape of a molecule
- fine; light and sound are based on waves (of sound and of light) and
specifically frequency - red is 400Khz of light, high-C is 20,000khz of
sound, etc; everyone has always assumed that smell is based on
molecular shape - Turin decides that it must be molecular frequency,
which is - deep breath - measured by how tight a molecule's electrons
are tied to it. OK, that's it for geek-speak.
Using that notion - frequency - it makes perfect sense that a
gigantic molecule developed by Dupont can smell precisely the same as,
say, fresh cut grass. Dupont polymers and grass molecules certainly
don't have the same shape - it would be comparing a mountain bike to a
747. But, if you add up their electrons, just by coincidence they both
vibrate with the same frequency. That's well-accepted chemistry.
And - lookee here - they just HAPPEN to smell the same!!!!
Turin collects evidence like that and then gets into some some crazy
biology-meets-chemistry-meets-physics-meets-perfume geek. I'm pretty
sure i roughly understood all of it.

So it's a good story.
But it's a great book because Burr can write so damn well,
specifically about a subject which is maddeningly difficult to write
about: smell. Over and over again in the book, he credits Turin,
perfume-book-author, with the gift of being able to put smell into
words. But Burr clearly has the same gift.
So you end up reading page after page of wonderfully constructed
essays and description on smells ("an initial note of cumin that
trumpets the arrival, in the background, of not-quite-ripe mango and a
Turkish alley after a strong rain") that, if left to you or I would be,
"like cheese, only maybe like apple." But burr and Turin describe
smells - particularly complex, perfumy smells - like long, intircate
pieces of music or deeply meaningful paintings. Which, really, smell
has every right to be treated as.
(burr recently wrote a piece in the New Yorker about a perfumer for
a major fashion house, which offered a glimpse of this. if you saw
that, this is 300 pages of it).

It's a smart book on just about every level, and if it has a flaw
it's that it sides so violently with Turin's theory over the rest of
the science world. The scientists who believe in the Shape-theory of
smell (which is to say, ALL scientists except Turin) are portrayed as
monkeys. Maybe they are. The case seems strong. but then, the book's
about Turin, so you'd expect that.
Fine. it's Burr's book.

Emperor of Scent. Give it a sniff.


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