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Good Reads  Organismal to Molecular Biology  Biochemistry & Molecular Biology

Elixir A Story of Perfume, Science and the Search for the Secret of Life

Popular Science New
By: Theresa Levitt(Author)
320 pages
Publisher: Basic Books
Elixir
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  • Elixir ISBN: 9781399803250 Paperback Feb 2024 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 5 days
    £12.99
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  • Elixir ISBN: 9781399803243 Hardback Apr 2023 Out of Print #261479
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About this book Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

Two friends in a Parisian perfume shop make a discovery that will transform our understanding of the world and the origins of life on Earth forever.

Set amidst the unforgettable sights and smells of 18th and 19th-century Paris, Elixir tells the story of Edouard Laugier and Auguste Laurent, the son of a perfumer and a fellow aspiring chemist, who met on the Left Bank while pursuing their passion for science.

Spurned by the scientific establishment, the pair ended up working out of Edouard's family perfume shop, Laugier pere et fils. By day they prepared the revitalizing elixirs and rejuvenating eaux it was famous for, but by night using the ingredients of the perfumery and the principles of alchemy, they pursued the secret of life itself.

Elixir reads like a novel, brimming with eccentric characters, experimental daring, and the romance of the Bohemian salon. It is the story of a long-standing scientific puzzle and the struggle to gain acceptance for a new way of thinking about the building blocks of living matter long after those who discovered it were both dead. Yet this is also a story of hope and determination. For while the scientific establishment ridiculed their work at the time, teenage lab assistant Louis Pasteur took it seriously and over the course of an exceptional career, was able to show that their work pointed to a deep, inexplicable asymmetry in the molecular arrangement of living things, known as chirality – an unexplained asymmetry which remains one of science's great mysteries.

Customer Reviews

Biography

Theresa Levitt is a Professor of History at the University of Mississippi, where she specialises in the history of science and French cultural history. She received a BS in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an MA in history from Iowa State University, and a PhD in the history of science from Harvard University. Her first book was The Shadow of Enlightenment: Optical and Political Transparency in France, 1789-1848 (CUP 2009). Philip Ball called it "an absolute treasure trove of ideas and connections". that wove together the science of light with the tumultuous politics of France during the Revolution and beyond. Her second book, A Short, Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Lighthouse Revolution appeared with W.W. Norton in 2013 and was glowingly reviewed in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere.

Popular Science New
By: Theresa Levitt(Author)
320 pages
Publisher: Basic Books
Media reviews

"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

"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

"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

"As Paris was rocked by waves of revolutionary zeal and lines blurred between cosmetics and medicines, two ambitious young chemists raced to investigate if there was something special – even unique – about matter that came from living things. A riveting read!"
– David Kaiser, author of Quantum Legacies

"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] fascinating account of the birth pangs of organic chemistry"
The Times

"Comprehensive [...] enjoyable [...] and most beguiling"
The Economist

"Levitt writes in a lively style, making the sights, sounds and smells of 18th and 19th century Europe come to life"
Mail on Sunday

"Written with the propulsive flow of a novel"
Science

"A delightful history of science and scent at the dawn of the modern age"
Financial Times Best Summer Books 2023

"A detailed yet absorbing adventure story [...] Deploying superb detection skills, academic Theresa Levitt has rescued from obscurity two friends, Edouard Laugier and Auguste Laruent, who searched for chemical order in living material – that is, the essence of life itself"
BBC History Magazine

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