Wednesday, August 25, 2010

I read a good book

The Emperor of Scent was a really, really good book. I'm not just saying that because it's about perfume -- I read enough crappy writing about perfume to know the difference. Also, it's not really about perfume. It's half biography and half pop science. The bio part is a portrait of Luca Turin, who is completely fascinating -- not only is he the world's most famous and respected perfume critic, he's a biophysicist who developed a primary reception theory of smell that, if accepted, could one day win him a Nobel prize. The pop science part is the story of the development of the theory, which required fairly in-depth knowledge of a number of different disciplines, plus a fascination with the way things actually smell. It's also the story of Turin's battle to advance the theory against massive resistance. It's written in a very "breezy" style, making it easy to read on the train, but it's also brilliantly meta -- it's about nonfiction. It's about science. It's about how human bias warps everything, even the scientific processes everyone assumes are basically fair and objective. It's about how investment (not just money but emotional investment) corrupts and blinds us. It's about spectroscopy, music, the smell of long-chain aldehydes and deuterated ions, resistance to the weird. In short, it's awesome. I'm sad it's over.

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