A mind for smells and a nose for writing about them

Special to The Times

LUCA TURIN, the author of this engaging if odd book, has a rule when he is reading that he calls the “Paragraph Rule”: In almost every science textbook there is one point, usually of paragraph length, where the style of the author matches exactly one’s style of understanding and which we grasp properly and permanently.

The key to enjoyment of “The Secret of Scent” is this “paragraph rule.” Speaking personally, whole pages sailed past me without troubling my comprehension one little bit -- as did the helpful diagrams of atoms. But then light would surprisingly dawn and I would find myself engaged, intrigued or challenged. I am no scientist. Nor, I imagine, are most of the readers who will, despite their ignorance and skipping pages like I did, be engaged by this quirky story of one man’s journey into discovering how we smell things.

You would think that centuries of perfume-makers would have cracked this by now, but though they harvest fields of roses -- and in the old days tortured small animals -- they learned only how to make things smell good to the human nose, and not how the human nose did its job.

This has been Turin’s lifetime quest, and it would be nothing more than a story of scientific exploration if it were not for the gentle charm of the author. Writing is one of the art forms (perhaps the only art form) where charm cannot be faked. Actors can fake charm; ballet dancers, musicians and even painters can all simulate charm, but there is something about the art of writing that strips character bare. And when this author is laid naked by his own prose, he is truly engaging.


Part of this is his talent as a writer. He has a natural fluency and a sense of humor that shines through every page. For a biophysicist he really can turn a sentence. Like this:

“How big are molecules? Picture them on the smelling strip as a huge flock of birds settled on a white sand beach. They are invisible from afar, but as you come close, you realize that the sand is teeming with millions of birds of all sizes and colors as far as the eye can see.”

Turin’s other great ability is his tendency to sweeping statements that the reader will love or hate but cannot help but consider. He views legislation to ban or restrict fragrant allergens as an overprotective reaction by the state to protect the minority at the expense of the enjoyment of the majority. It is a view that is trenchant if unfashionable. His charming perspective that a good perfume is worth a rash on a few oversensitive people is that of an unrepentant scent-junkie against the nanny-state. His hatred of the “loud fragrances” of the ‘80s -- Opium, Poison, Giorgio -- will be cheered by anyone who has choked over dinner in the cloud of what he calls “high impact synthetics.” I may have already known the perfumes I hated, but until Turin named them, I did not know why.

The scientifically minded may follow some of the detailed chemistry and the maps of molecules. Lovers of perfume will skip these bits and enjoy the careful consideration of shades of color of smell. Turin has spent his life enjoying scents and his arcane enthusiasms -- the fabric softener Stergene as well as a discontinued fragrance from Shiseido -- are infectious. He is not just esoteric; he identifies changing fashions in smell that anyone can remember. To those born in the 1950s, cleanliness smelled of coal tar soap or bleach. In the 1960s it was pine. These days cleanliness smells citrus or floral. After an hour with this book your awareness of scent in the world and your own preferences become delightfully acute and you walk around in a state of heightened awareness.


Turin’s story is of his own career as well -- championing a theory of smelling that is still not universally accepted. Scientists are divided between whether the nose receives molecules depending on their shape or on their vibration. Turin is an admirer of the first advocate of the vibration viewpoint, the scientist Malcolm Dyson who worked on the smell of the mustard gas he had known in the trenches of World War I. Turin points out that the ability to recognize the smell could make the difference between life or death. Dyson suggested that smells were received by the nose on the basis of their vibration almost like sound in the ear. Turin’s own work, controversial and productive, follows this tradition and the only part of the book that loses its confident bounce is when he recounts the malice of rival scientists who argued for the reception of smell on the basis of the shape of the molecules.

Whatever aspect of this book strikes you as the most interesting, you will come away from it better informed and intensely sensitized. You will consciously smell the layers of perfume in your own room: the citrus fabric care on the curtains, the hint of sandalwood in the polished furniture, the musk of the room deodorizer, the florals of your hair conditioner, the warm smell of your coat -- and that’s before you even choose your favorite cologne.


Philippa Gregory is the author of many books, including “The Boleyn Inheritance” and “The Constant Princess.”