Tag Archives: smell

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★★★★★

Infographic: Table of Esters and their Smells

Table of Esters and Their Smells

Click to download (1.1Mb JPEG)

I love esters. This infographic is totally self-explanatory to any chemist. (Or email me if you have any questions.) Enjoy! 😉

  • Esters are made by reacting alcohols and carboxylic acids together in a condensation reaction.
  • Different combinations of alcohols and carboxylic acids give rise to different esters, and each ester has a unique aroma.
  • These esters are found naturally in fruits and vegetables and are also used in perfumes.
  • You can now look up an ester in the table above and find its aroma by referring to the picture.
  • Ambiguous or “mixed” smells are indicated by the presence of multiple images in each box.
  • Benzyl salicylate is amazing: some people can perceive it while others can’t. However, people who can’t perceive benzyl salicylate can tell that it alters the overall aroma of perfume to which it’s been added! Magic!
  • You can make any of these relatively safely in the kitchen or at school.
  • All of these esters are edible in minuscule (microgram) amounts and are found naturally in all fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices.
  • That said, though,
      never eat anything you make in the lab!

Book: A Natural History of the Senses

Each word surprises you pleasantly. Reading this book feels like being tickled. 🙂


An appreciation of all things bright and beautiful. Very Powerful Muse.

352 pages, ★★★★★

Walking back from the gym, I noticed a new stall in the mall: the Demeter® Fragrance Library. Their stall was unstaffed when I arrived, so I went about sniffing over 200 perfume bottles like a kid in a candy store. I smelled classic aromas such as “Rose”, “Lavender”, “Peach”, and “Ocean”, then tried the more obscure ones: “New Car”, “Laundromat”, “Rain”, and “Baby Smell”.

The Demeter® Fragrance Library sells body sprays, bath products and room air fresheners with a single, recognizable scent. Demeter calls them, “single experience fragrances”.

The most interesting part for me was the gift packaging. A quote printed on the gift boxes claimed that Diane Ackermann’s book, A Natural History of the Senses was the inspiration for setting up this playhouse of a store. I wanted to be inspired, so I didn’t buy the perfume, but I did buy the book.

This book is divided into six sections: smell, touch, taste, hearing, vision and synesthesia. Author Ackerman takes thousands minuscule daily encounters with nature, connects them, and amplifies them into vibrant prose. The result is a delightfully indirect journey from violets to neurones, from tattoos to phantom limbs, and from “salty” human origins (in the ocean) to the launch of a space shuttle. Natural History of the Senses is a constant surprise to read—rather like being tickled. The first chapter on “smell” is by far the best.

A Natural History of the Senses belongs beside The Importance of Living (see my review) and 窈窕淑女的标准 (see my review) in the genre of “appreciation of the smaller aspects of life”. I recommend these three delightful reads for anyone with the time and patience to find exquisite beauty in everyday life. ★★★★★