An elegant analysis of one man’s work in deciphering the sense of smell.
Raised in France, Luca Turin is happy to admit that “the idea that things should be slightly dirty, overripe, slightly fecal is everywhere in France.” Given a stinky cheese, says he, Americans think, “Good God!”; Japanese think, “I must now commit suicide”; and the French think, “Where’s the bread?” So perhaps it’s not surprising that Turin should be captivated by the sense of smell, and, with his polymathic background in science, arrive at a theory of how it works, the last sense to be cracked—and still to be universally recognized as so. But journalist Burr (A Separate Creation: The Search for the Biological Origins of Sexual Orientation, 1996) is a believer, and he presents Turin’s work in the best possible light, even its rejection by the prestigious magazine Nature, whose referees’ comments he nimbly dissects and hangs out to dry as a combination of stung egos and vested interests. The theory introduces a whole new wrinkle to what is known about molecular recognition, though the lay audience, happy to have made it through the intelligible science, will be happier still when the spotlight falls on Turin himself, an appealing and genuine maverick who, in bringing quantum mechanics to a physiological problem (and crossing covetously guarded frontiers), invited the wrath of academics, not to mention of chemists at the Big 7 producers of artificial scents, who might greet his smell-prediction algorithm much as the Luddites welcomed mechanization. (It’s interesting to compare the openness of scientific inquiry in Russia and India with its equivalent in Europe and America.) Burr unravels the story, with all its beard-pulling and molecular blacksmithing, its megahertz and neurobiology, with grace, an eye for the intelligent human-interest angle, and a steady tincture of bright humor.
The music of science, as irresistible as Vetiver or Rive Gauche.