Smells like SCIENCE
January 2, 2013 3:34 PM   Subscribe

After dropping chemistry post-GCSEs, I find myself reading a couple of books about perfume construction that have made me realise that molecules are interesting, and that if they're written about for a non-scientific audience, I understand and am engaged by them more. How can I learn more without being scared off by Really Hard Science? And are there other books or articles which deal with the construction of scents and smells?

The books I've been reading are two by Chandler Burr - The Perfect Scent, about the development and manufacture of two particular perfumes (one a celebrity perfume, the other by a reknowned 'nose') and The Emperor of Scent, which is about the scientist/writer Luca Turin's theory of how scent is perceived by the nose - but my woeful chemistry/scientific knowledge has led me to put that to one side for the moment until I can understand it better. I also have The Canon, the guide to science for the non-scientific, though I haven't managed to get into it yet.

I've realised I'm fascinated by the descriptions of the chemistry of perfume - the huge companies that develop scents in labs, machines that can break down scents into exact molecular compositions and how some perfumers drop in infinitesmal concentrations of compounds to avoid 'piracy', the ways in which certain synthetics can completely change a smell molecule by molecule, the widely-used molecular compounds that the consumer has come to know as 'citrus' or 'fresh laundry' in household products. I'm interested in the idea that smells or fragrances work because their ingredients are arranged in a particular way on a molecular level, and I'd like to know how and why compounds and elements are used.

If chemistry at school was about this, I would have got an A. But I didn't, and now I'm wondering what else I can read which will hold the same fascination to me without being aimed at people who already have more of a grasp of how molecular structures etc. work, but which won't be difficult for my left brain to parse. Where should I go to learn more?
posted by mippy to Science & Nature (6 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Great question :) I often think about how much fun it be to work as a cosmetic chemist, but I just don't have a brain for math or science.

Anyways, here are a few ideas:
I work at a company in the beauty industry and we are big on continuing education and gaining product knowledge. We purchased a class like this for a top account executive. It is online-based so you can learn at your own pace. They also send you a textbook via postal mail. I'm not sure if they ship to the UK, but perhaps you can google 'perfume formulation class uk' or something similar.

Brooklyn Brainery is a place where people in the NY metro area can take all sorts of fun classes, like cheese making or calligraphy. It has been reccommended here on AskMeta before and although I haven't tried any classes as of yet, I am subscribed to their email newsletter and think everything sounds like a lot of fun :) There must be something similar in the UK!

Also, I love The Beauty Brains blog. The blog is written by female cosmetic chemists and they answer reader questions and debunk beauty and skincare myths.
posted by lovelygirl at 4:16 PM on January 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

There's a few UK places that do crafty classes like The Makery, but sciency things tend to be more formal, like doing a qualification, and they'd probably be too broad for my interests. With time, space and money being short for the next few months I think reading might be the way to go!

I do occasionally deal with beauty claims through my work (I approve advertising for UK TV, so I see substantiation for advertised cosmetic claims) but this never involves fragrance or fragrance structure (though it is interesting to see what ingredients produce which effect).
posted by mippy at 4:27 PM on January 2, 2013

I've been wondering about buying my girlfriend a ticket to the evening events at Les Senteurs for a while. They say they've got a library to browse in, too, so maybe just pop by and have a look? Their blog is pretty interesting, too.

And if you're ever in Brooklyn, a visit to CB I Hate Perfume is brilliant fun.
posted by cromagnon at 4:33 PM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

You might be interested in this article about the process of developing scents for laundry products. Admittedly it gets a little technical (it was published in the weekly newsmagazine of the American Chemical Society), but I thought it was remarkably thought-provoking about the challenges of that process. Things that smell are volatile, right? Which means that they evaporate at higher temperatures. So how *do* you develop a fragrance for laundry soap that sticks around after the dryer cycle?
posted by Sublimity at 5:53 PM on January 2, 2013

I know you're looking for science-y things, but I think you would also really enjoy the novel Perfume by Patrick Suskind, about a perfumier in 18th-century France. It's a brilliant read.
posted by Salamander at 6:50 PM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Two suggestions, both well-written books about molecules and atoms (neither one is perfume-specific):

Atkins' Molecules - one reviewer called it "the most beautiful chemistry book ever written"; it's out of print and therefore pricy, but check your library (and interlibrary loan if available)

The periodic kingdom : a journey into the land of the chemical elements, also by P. W. Atkins

(That's funny - I really enjoyed both, and didn't realize until posting this that they're both by the same author.)

You might also enjoy Uncle Tungsten : memories of a chemical boyhood by Oliver Sacks, one of the great science popularizers of our day.
posted by kristi at 12:27 PM on January 4, 2013

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