Monday 26 March 2007

Smells like mid-afternoon

For the last couple of years I've been quietly obsessed with Luca Turin, a European biophysicist who has championed the vibration theory of smell, which proposes that, rather than the nose containing receptors which lock on to smell molecules, and recognises them by shape (which is the way the immune system works), the nose works as a kind of fleshy spectroscope, which recognises the frequencies of the molecular structure of the smell.

Now, I realise that the paragraph above (which, I'll proudly have you know, I wrote from memory without any reference to Wikipedia) sounds far from interesting. But three things about Turin make him fascinating. One: he's a 'nose' - he has an uncanny ability to distinguish, recall and describe smells. Two: he's a perfume expert and connoisseur. Three: he's one of those movie-genius types: impassioned, inflammatory, defamatory.

One of my favourite books from last year was Turin's The Secret of Scent: Adventures in Perfume and the Science of Smell, and I first got on to Turin through Chandler Burr's The Emperor of Scent: A Story of Perfume, Obsession, and the Last Mystery of the Senses, which is a sympathetic but clear-eyed account of Turin's attempts to get his work recognised by the science fraternity.

You can get both these books from Unity. But you can also read Turin's monthly perfume reviews / rants / laments on the NZZ Folio site, if you're looking to while away fifteen minutes.

Luca Turin reviews - NZZ Folio

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