Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Secret of Scent by Luca Turin (19 of 166)

One Sentence Summary: A persuasive argument for biochemist Luca Turin's theories regarding the mysterious scent molecule.

"The voice of Nombre Noir was that of a child older than its years, at once fresh, husky, modulated and faintly capricious. There was a knowing naivety about it which made me think of Colette's writing style in her Claudine books. It brought to mind a purple ink to write love letters with, and that wonderful French word farouche, which can mean either shy or fierce or a bit of both. I immediately bought a very expensive half-ounce in a little square black bottle." 
I am thoroughly intimidated by anything more than cursory approaches to the sciences. For the most part a decent student in high school, I hung on by the skin of teeth in science classes year after depressing year. It is not that I do not appreciate science; don't get me wrong. I actually love it. I experience the same strange pull to it that I do to all fields with any mystery left to them. It is just that curriculum everywhere manage to squeeze all of the goodness out of a thing and replace it with the knee-knocking fear of senseless equation running. Equations are beautiful things, but not when they have stripped down to their use on standardized testing. You catch my drift. I think that it must be nearly impossible to separate a love of this world from a love of science. High school achieved it. Remarkable.

Something that I do have a decent understanding of is perfume. It may a seem a superfluous sort of interest, a bourgeoisie fascination, but I would argue that belief to come from a root of ignorance. Scent is integral to our relationships, to each other, to ourselves, and to our environment. It is the sense most strongly linked with memory and association. And yet, when it comes to finding the sensory calling card that you will leave most subtly and inexorably on those you meet, we deem the pursuit vanity. Why am I into perfume? Because it is complicated and romantic and different for every person out there, because it is full of beautiful language both technical (fougere, aldehydic, chypre) and descriptive (blousy, biting, sensual, woody), and because the legacy of scent is so strong.

Taking into consideration the above two paragraphs, one begins to understand how I managed to finish a book that, by its very nature, gave me test-taking anxiety. Luca Turin writes on his topic with so much passion and excitement that you cannot help but feel that scent molecules are the most important thing to happen to science since the microscope. Even as I labored through pages of complicated (for me) formulas, it always became worth it for me upon reaching another milestone where the shop talk turned back to perfume. Turin managed to make his book about more than his theory (which is fascinating, by the way)- he managed to make it a scientist's love letter to an arcane and under-appreciated art form. Better than that, he wrote with all of the sass of a self-assured Frenchman. Like a complete bad ass, he shrugs off his nay-sayers by casually reminding that he has used his theory of scent to generate synthetic molecules for Flexitrol for several years now. Excuse me, but:

I only wish I had a better grasp on the technical aspect of this little treatise on scent.

I would like to take a Chemistry 101 class and then return to this text to see what else I can take away from it. But Luca Turin sounds like someone I want to take up over the perfume counter in some back-alley Parisian boutique and talk Coty, Chanel, and everything in between, up, down, and diagonal. 

Shelf Status: Keeping for now. Perfume books are few and far between.

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