Book: The Secret of Scent

The Secret of Scent

Mesmerising, thrilling quest for what causes scent.
Brimming with chemical structures.
200 pages, ★★★★★

Wow. The Secret of Scent looks like a bottle of Chanel No. 5. It even says 1 fl oz!

The book’s subtitle, adventures in perfume and the science of smell is totally accurate (after some rearrangement). If we were to split this book vertically, like an avocado, the first 100 pages would describe the smell of perfume, while the latter 100 pages could be titled adventures in science.

The smell of perfume half tells us the main categories of smell and how altering compounds alters their smell. This half of the book is full of chemical structures and IUPAC nomenclature. This half of The Secret of Scentinspired another perfume-related graphic, which I’m making as we speak. 🙂

The adventures in science part is an exciting journey towards the discovery of the secret of scent (which hasn’t quite yet been discovered, but scientists are getting very close). Two main theories prevail in the science of smell: that odorous compounds are recognised by either (a) their vibrational frequencies; or (b) their chemical shape. This book provides more evidence for the former (vibrational frequencies), implying that it might be possible to predict the smell of a molecule from its infra-red spectrograph! Unfortunately, this theory doesn’t explain chirality, and how humans can perceive chiral enantiomers sometimes of different smells (e.g. orange and lemon) seems to violate this first theory. Or, merging the two theories together, it would seem that our olfactory glands are doing some kind of chiral spectroscopy on the molecules we breathe!

Fascinating book. I love Chemistry and I love perfume so this was a perfect book form me. Also consider A Natural History of the Senses by Diana Ackerman★★★★★


5 thoughts on “Book: The Secret of Scent

  1. Is what happens with chiral molecules not clear from Turin’s proposed mechanism? Electrons in the receptors don’t transport through the entire molecule — they traverse specific bonds and those they do depend on how the molecule binds in the receptor pocket. It’s no surprise that enantiomers bind differently, they do in every other part of molecular biology.


    1. Ahh. I was thinking along the lines that enantiomers by themselves have identical spectra. Actually, when bonded with an enantiomer-specific nose receptor, their spectra will actually be different. You’re quite right 🙂

      I really hope his theory is true. I want to see a spectrum of smells by wave number, like the spectrum of visible light.


      1. An excellent companion to this book is the book “The Emperor of Scent” by Chandler Burr. It has a decent discussion of some of the thinking behind the theory (in the same vein as Galileo’s thought experiments about falling objects), OK descriptions of the experiments (though the actual paper is better for non-lay people of course), and also tells the tale of the journal article’s drawn out peer review process and ultimate rejection from Nature.

        The original paper (“A Spectroscopic Mechanism for Primary Olfactory Reception”) can be found with minimal googling and is also worth a glance.

        P.S. I am enjoying your smell chart!


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