Posted by: Gregg | March 3, 2009

Anatomy of a bail: The Emperor of Scent – Chandler Burr

I’m about a third of the way in and I’ve been struggling with it for a while, and I’m afraid I’m going to just have to cut bait. It took me longer than it usually does to make this decision, since I really really really wanted to like this one. The book would at first blush seem right up my alley: a true story about a charmingly rogue scientist who stretches across different scientific disciplines and creates an entire new theory of how we recognize smells, but his research is sabotaged by the scientific community because he’s a rulebreaker and doesn’t kiss enough ass.

That description has it all: a new scientific principle concerning something we deal with every day, a fun and engaging scientist who’s struggling against the establishment, and a peek inside the multi-multi-million dollar prefume industry. The problem with the book is that there’s too much sdamn cience involved. You see, I consider myself a fairly well-read person and for the most part I enjoy science writing. However, I am an English major and need scientific principles explained to me as one would explain them to a hyperactive fifth-grader. Burr starts off reasonably enough, talking about the chemical bonds between molecules, but soon plunges headlong into electron tunneling and making diodes out of proteins and pretty soon I’m completely over my head. When Burr switches back to the narrative, I’m fully locked in, but within a few pages I’m drowning in the science again, and I start to slog.

So yeah: I’ve got to bail. For those more patient than me, and who are able to follow the science, this is a completely engaging book. A good buddy of mine who can bring the science, the Rambling Rover, would probably love it. But it’s not for me.

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