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Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History Paperback – May 24, 2004
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Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"Well-conceived, well-done popular science." --Booklist
"Well-conceived, well-done popular science."
"The authors unearth a wealth of anecdotes from all parts of the world and use them effectively to illustrate the technological underpinnings of modern society. Thoughtful, often surprising, smoothly written."
"Entertaining accounts of how various objects' chemical properties might have changed history."
"What does the fiery compound C17H19O3N have to do with the discovery of North America? Plenty, according to this remarkable collection of scientific sleuthings. The book's cases -- especially the chapter blaming Napoleon's disastrous Russian campaign on the eponymous tin fasteners that failed to hold French uniforms together -- unfold like CSI meets the History Channel. A splendid example of better reading through chemistry. B+"
"This book is both original and fascinating; I was quickly absorbed by this refreshing mix of science and history; I learned a lot of both and read this book quite quickly for a science book."
--The Literary Flaneur
Top Customer Reviews
In Napoleon's Button's, LeCouteur and Burreson take that premise to a much higher level. They not only tell you how the molecules work, they explain the impact these molecules have had on human history, economics, and geopolitics. They consider what might have happened if the molecules in question had been discovered, understood, or used by someone else.
For example, the effects of ascorbic acid deficiency, and its treatment, were known in China as early as the fifth century. Norse explorers drank a brew made of "scurvy grass" during their voyages across the North Atlantic. However, scurvy killed more European sailors between 1470 and 1770 than all other causes, despite reports on prevention and cure as early as the mid-1500's. Magellan lost over 90% of his crew during the circumnavigation of the globe in 1519-1522. Only 18 sailors returned to Spain with the spices that had prompted the journey. Magellan himself was killed in the Philippines during a stop necessitated by the weakened condition of his remaining crew.
The authors ask the reader to imagine the present geopolitics if the Age of Discovery had included adequate stores of lemon juice. "If the Portuguese, the first European explorers to travel these long distances had understood the secret of ascorbic acid, they might have explored the Pacific Ocean centuries before James Cook." The Dutch, also, might have held claims to large portions of the South Pacific. They conclude, "The British . . . would have been left with a much smaller empire and much less influence in the world, even to this day."
Even 20th century adventurers have fallen to the effects of ascorbic acid deficiency.Read more ›
The authors take us on a fascinating journey through history and chemistry - starting with piperine, the stuff that puts the 'hot' in peppers and ending with the molecules that have conquered malaria. Both natural and synthetic substances are studied. The impact of natural substances like salt, caffeine, and olive oil reaches far past daily life and into the fate of nations. The search for synthetic substitutes has led to diverse products such as nylon, artificial sweeteners, the Pill, and Styrofoam. The impacts of several live-saving substances like vitamin-C and antibiotics are explored. Some compounds, such as DDT and Freon, that were originally seen as near-miracles have proven to be rather disastrous to the environment. Napoleon's Buttons explores the consequences for better and for worse, sometimes all in the same substance.
The book starts with a very friendly overview of chemistry diagrams and terms. The authors provide a multitude of diagrams that show how various substances are similar and different. It's truly amazing how a tiny change in structure can completely alter the properties of a molecule. I think the diagrams are fascinating, but if you're not that interested in the actual chemistry, you can easily ignore them and concentrate on the stories that illustrate the effect of each substance.Read more ›
The chapter on oleic acid (olive oil) was particularly interesting. I now understand what is meant by "saturated fat", "monounsaturated fat" and "trans-fat", and why soap works. A lot of information, easily absorbed.
My only quibble is that the authors thought they had to conclude each chapter with a few paragraphs about "how this molecule changed history". That got tiresome, fast.
They do not shy away from the dark side of chemistry - Bayer, who invented Aspirin, also manufactured poison gas for use by Imperial Germany in WWI. Wonder drugs like DDT and CFC's are now vilified as being major environmental problems, but few now remember that DDT was almost solely responsible for the irradication of malaria (by killing the mosquito carriers) in Europe and North America. So the health benefit far outweighs any current negative human health issues. It's this balance that makes the book both interesting and important. There is a lot of scientific illiteracy out there. Hopefully lots of people will get this book and learn to give chemistry a fair chance.
There is a lot of chemistry in the book. However, I think it's well-enough explained that the lay reader will be able to easily follow along.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Good opening story, drawing in the significance of chemicals and their impact on world events. However, the narratives gets pretty technical after that and the book needed a few... Read morePublished 15 days ago by Kevin Slattery
The book is very interesting. It is a detailed story of how organic chemistry is the beginning and father of most invention and innovation.Published 22 days ago by Amazon Customer
Both a scientific book and an historical book. Napoleon's Buttons takes several classes of chemicals, gives their histories and applications. Read morePublished 1 month ago by Dean S. Maclaughlin
This book is really interesting, fun to read, educating. Highly recommended.Published 3 months ago by N. Graves
It's difficult to say whether this is a very good book or not. The authors promised in the introduction that the chemistry would be simple but it is not. Read morePublished 4 months ago by YIPLIU
A lively introduction to organic chemistry. Rigorous, but easily read by any non-chemist.Published 4 months ago by A. W. Moats