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Elixir : A Parisian Perfume House and the Quest for the Secret of Life - Theresa Levitt


A Parisian Perfume House and the Quest for the Secret of Life

By: Theresa Levitt

Hardcover | 25 April 2023

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A Financial Times and Scientific American Best Book of the Year.

A story of alchemy in Bohemian Paris, where two scientific outcasts discovered a fundamental distinction between natural and synthetic chemicals that inaugurated an enduring scientific mystery.

For centuries, scientists believed that living matter possessed a special quality-a spirit or essence-that differentiated it from nonliving matter. But by the nineteenth century, the scientific consensus was that the building blocks of one were identical to the building blocks of the other. Elixir tells the story of two young chemists who were not convinced, and how their work rewrote the boundary between life and nonlife.

In the 1830s, Edouard Laugier and Auguste Laurent were working in Laugier Pere et Fils, the oldest perfume house in Paris. By day they prepared the perfumery's revitalizing elixirs and rejuvenating eaux, drawing on alchemical traditions that equated a plant's vitality with its aroma. In their spare time they hunted the vital force that promised to reveal the secret to life itself. Their ideas, roundly condemned by established chemists, led to the discovery of structural differences between naturally occurring molecules and their synthetic counterparts, even when the molecules were chemically identical.

Scientists still can't explain this anomaly, but it may point to critical insights concerning the origins of life on Earth. Rich in sparks and smells, brimming with eccentric characters, experimental daring, and the romance of the Bohemian salon, Elixir is a fascinating cultural and scientific history.

Industry Reviews
Almost impossible to put down...Written with the propulsive flow of a novel, [Elixir] unfolds in two interconnected but sequential stories, each following a scientific hero...A whirlwind tour from the point of view of pomades, perfumes, and eau de cologne. -- Michael D. Gordin * Science *
[Elixir] vividly evokes cultural life in Bohemian Paris, the turbulence of the French Revolution and its aftermath, and the feuds that plagued rival scientists...Levitt's social history, especially of perfume, is fascinating. -- Moira Hodgson * Wall Street Journal *
A delightful history of science and scent at the dawn of the modern age. -- Tony Barber * Financial Times *
Pulling from historical publications and personal writings, Theresa Levitt vividly explains why perfume-bathed in, lathered on, and orally consumed-had a chokehold on Parisian life. * Scientific American *
[A] fascinating account of the birth pangs of organic chemistry in 19th-century Paris...[Levitt] has caught well these dreaming, competitive, daring men in the act of living, each striving compulsively for the giddy, intoxicating bliss of insight into the making of the world. -- Matthew Lyons * The Times *
Focuses on early nineteenth-century bohemian Paris, where the movers and shakers in big-business perfumery battled for advantage against a revolutionary backdrop...The combination of careful research and anecdote in Theresa Levitt's book makes reading about these entrepreneurs a pleasure. -- Sarah Everts * Times Literary Supplement *
Comprehensive...Levitt is especially good at evoking the all-consuming nature of scientific rivalry. * The Economist *
[An] extraordinary book, which begins with perfumes and ends by having us think about the origin of life itself. Edouard Laugier would have approved. -- Christoph Irmscher * Chapter 16 *
If you read this book you will be changed. For those of us who make a living assembling words to describe smells, this book feels like an actual elixir. Absolutely stunning. -- Kiese Laymon, MacArthur Fellow and author of Heavy: An American Memoir
Dizzying and fragrant with elegant and riveting sentences, Levitt takes us on a most fascinating journey from the bloody revolutions to the chemistry labs of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France, all to glimpse the glorious pursuit of scent. Truly a captivating achievement! -- Aimee Nezhukumatathil, author of World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments
'Here is where the story begins,' promises Levitt at the end of her prologue, and though it's only page four, already we're hooked. Who knew that the history of perfume would incorporate not only alchemy, botany, and fermentation, but intrigue, secrets, and scandal? This thoroughly researched tale is also thoroughly gripping and thoroughly readable. Elixir is a fabulous accomplishment. -- Beth Ann Fennelly, Poet Laureate of Mississippi and author of Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs
Elixir is a fascinating tale of discovery, wonder, and revolution. Beautifully written and deeply researched, it shows how the paths to artificial dyes, bottled soda, and Pasteur's breakthrough all ran through a humble perfume shop. With remarkable historical and literary skill, Levitt reveals how the quest to supply queenly scents and Napoleon's bathwater ended up interrogating the most profound questions of life and death. -- Matthew Stanley, author of Einstein's War: How Relativity Triumphed Amid the Vicious Nationalism of World War I
As Paris was rocked by waves of revolutionary zeal, and lines blurred between cosmetics and medicines, two ambitious young chemists raced to investigate whether there was something special-even unique-about matter that comes from living things. A riveting read! -- David Kaiser, author of Quantum Legacies: Dispatches from an Uncertain World
At a time when the boundaries between scientists, salesmen, and charlatans were as blurry as productive, Levitt describes how investigations about health and hygiene were inseparable from the desire to smell good. The laboratories that gave us modern chemistry were not places where the disturbances of the outside world were kept out, but rather where they were welcomed in to be distilled and repackaged in their most intoxicating form. This highly original work shows us that scientific truth is not only messier than we have previously considered it to be-it is smellier. -- Jimena Canales, author of Bedeviled: A Shadow History of Demons in Science

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