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124 of 124 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars For want of a double bond
Someone once said, "Biology names things. Chemistry tells you how they work."
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...
Published on May 26, 2003 by Nancy S. Boutin

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69 of 93 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good despite an unfortunate mistake in the title essay
Like many books on science and engineering, Napoleon's Buttons tries to explain some of the more arcane details of modern life from a scientific point of view. I enjoyed most of the articles, and especially the one on scurvy.

Nevertheless, the title article contains a major and grievous error which has been compounded by the writers' lack of reliance on...
Published on March 18, 2009 by Charlene Vickers


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124 of 124 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars For want of a double bond, May 26, 2003
By 
Nancy S. Boutin (lake oswego, or USA) - See all my reviews
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Someone once said, "Biology names things. Chemistry tells you how they work."
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. The Amundsen/Scott race to the South Pole was decided by the Brits' lack of vitamin C. "Only eleven miles from a food and fuel depot they found themselves too exhausted to continue."
Sixteen other molecules, or classes of molecules, including cellulose, morphine, isoprene, and salt, are given similar turns under the magnifying glass. The authors walk the line between chemistry and anecdote. For the former chem. majors there are formulae and descriptions--cis and trans, alpha and beta. For history buffs, the human stories stand without in-depth study of the chemical structures.
The prose is lively and often amusing. The chapters are divided in such a way the book can be put down and picked up easily, if the reader can resist the temptation of "just one more molecule." Now I'm trying to decide if I should first hand off my copy to my dad or my high school-age daughter. Or--maybe my daughter's teacher . . . .
As much as we humans might like to think our intellect raises us above the natural world, this book reminds us, we are our biology--and our chemistry.
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65 of 65 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Better Living Through Chemistry, October 7, 2004
By 
Did tin buttons that crumbled in the cold stop Napoleon's army? Or was it scurvy from lack of vitamin-C? Or lack of antibiotics for the wounded? Throughout history, there have been substances that have changed the world. The authors have chosen 17 types of molecules that have altered the course of nations, societies and cultures. Each chapter centers on one of the molecules, and it's very interesting that many of the molecules are interconnected.

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. Le Couteur and Burreson entertain as well as educate with their well-chosen selection of anecdotes. Their writing is very understandable for the casual reader, but includes enough detail to satisfy someone with a stronger background in science.

I don't usually comment on the look of the text, but I thought it was just outstanding in this book. Both the text and the diagrams are exceptionally clean and easy to read. The information is very well organized - it's easy to read each chapter as a self contained unit, but there's enough of a framework tying it all together to make it a coherent whole.
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36 of 36 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lots of interesting factoids, June 9, 2005
By 
W. Gross "winkg" (Portland, OR United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History (Paperback)
I enjoyed this book very much. Each chapter is devoted to a particular molecule, e.g., glucose, silk, phenol, salt, etc., and discusses both its chemical structure and its significance to civilization. To a former engineer who somehow escaped even a smattering of organic chemistry, this book explained a lot in an easy-to-follow manner. The authors illustrate each molecule schematically, and in many cases show how a subtle difference in structure can lead to dramatic differences in chemical behavior. Makes me wish I had studied organic chemistry in college.

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.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A nice book to give a "feel" for the importance of chemistry, May 6, 2005
By 
Craig MACKINNON (Thunder Bay, Ontario Canada) - See all my reviews
There is no question that chemistry, perhaps most of all the sciences, has a bad public image. People automatically assume chemistry is to blame for most of the perceived evils of the world - the ozone layer holes, overuse of pesticides, carcinogenic food and fuel additives, smog, etc. The authors of this fun little book successfully argue that it's not the chemistry, per se, that is bad but the (over)use of chemistry. They have culled several molecules from the pages of history (in fact there are many more than just the 17 advertised in the title, it's really more like 17 families of molecules) and tell the stories behind them. Each chapter covers their discovery and/or first synthesis, the way they were first used by society, and how they are now seen. They rightfully focus on older molecules, since many new ones have not been around long enough to allow analysis of their long-term impact.

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. Chemists will find many of the explanations to be glossed for a general audience (and, in fact, there are a few places that are just plain erroneous), but if the intention is to use this as a teaching resource for neat tidbits or project ideas, this is not a fatal flaw. Similarly, , a negative but not fatal problem is the choice of compounds. Sure, the authors make a spirited pitch for each of their choices, but I can think of many chemicals that are far more important than the molecules they include - what about DNA, for instance, or uranium hexafluoride, or even bronze (that has a whole Age named after it)?

Any book that attempts to increase scientific literacy is valuable, and this one especially so because it presents the chemistry as a neutral thing that mankind can use for good or evil (but usually both simultaneously). Not only that, it is presented in a conversational and easy-to-read fashion. So pick up a copy - I guarantee you'll learn something new and interesting that you didn't know before!
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Glory Days of Chemistry are Over...or Are They?, September 17, 2005
By 
Joseph Biskup (Sunnyvale, ca United States) - See all my reviews
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Much as fashion and authors go in and out of style, the sciences do the same. During the 19th century chemistry was ascendant but then physics came into vogue. As of late biology receives more than its fair share of attention, but still chemistry acts as a right hand to society and in a very simple and easy to understand way, this book explains why. All the attention seems to go to "Napoleon's Buttons", but this is a red herring; after the introduction this somewhat silly subject is never brought up again (I kept thinking that even if all the buttons really fell off, would the soldiers really have no other way to keep their clothes on?). This book could have more appropriately been called "Benzene's Bondage" or "Phenol Oh!" but who has heard of these guys? Napoleon is much more famous so I enjoyed the introduction and the rest of the book just as much (It has been a LONG time since I have studied chemistry, I can't even remember the Periodic table).

The writing is clear and concise. There is lots of chemistry but also lots of history and personality. The author spends much more time explaining who, what, when, where and why, much of the how (details of all the chemical reactions, temperature, pressure, time, method, etc.) is left for a real chemistry class. After Napoleon, the introduction is well used to explain basic terminology and chemistry. As through the entire book, the diagrams of the chemicals are simple and excellent. They are right after the text they are diagramming, and they are all succinctly labeled; I referred back to this first section many times. There are many chemical names, after a while they start to sound similar but the index is also very good; several times I wanted to find a previously mentioned chemical and I was always able to find the correct passage.

As the authors state right off, this is a very subjective endeavor. If you go ask another chemist to name the 17 most important chemicals, you are almost assured to get an [at least] slightly different list. That is not the real point though. (Who actually believes those top 5, 10 or 20 lists anyway? #1 is the champion but #2 is an also-ran; #20 is a contender but #21 is forgotten, it is pretty silly and depressing to take this literally.) The authors, in a very approachable manner, explain where and when these 17 chemicals made a difference, but please don't hold on too strongly to the belief that #5 is more important to history than #6 (or that we could do completely without #18).

I found an interesting change going through my thought process about halfway through this book. At first I focused on the differences between the chemicals, but then they all started to look pretty similar. For me, especially, the similarities between glucose and cellulose were hard to wrap my mind around; my clothes and just don't look the same when I consider the difference between them and dessert (or a tree). The dies that make my clothes beautiful colors look a lot like the chemicals to make bombs. The difference between nitroglycerine and the olive oil I like to dip my bread in looks pretty fine, especially when considering how similar they are to the chemical necessary to keep my brain functioning. Life is amazing.

Later in the book there are much larger chemicals that are equally interesting. The difference between a legal chemical and illegal drug is a fine one indeed; but obviously our body is capable of making equally fine distinctions in its functioning also. I never knew that chemistry could be so interesting!
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars excellent read, November 18, 2004
By 
I picked this up in a store and bought it on a whim... Halfway through I finally let myself take a break and put it down. Before I'd finished it I bought another copy for my grandfather (chemical engineer) and I know he'll love it. Very interesting and easy to follow, no matter what your level of knowledge (I had some chemsitry in college, nothing since). It ties chemistry in to the real world rather nicely, drawing connections I never knew about. Highly recommended.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History, May 31, 2004
Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules changed History written by Penny LeCouteur and Jay Burreson is a wonderful little tome of seventeen chapters that shows the reader how 17 molecules changed history.
"Napoleon's Buttons" takes the reader on a world-wind tour de force about what Columbus could not have foreseen from the results of his search for piperine, Magellan was unaware of the long-term effects of his quest for isoeugenol, and Schonbein would have been astonished that the nitrocellulose he made from his wife's apron was the start of of great industries as diverse as explosives and textiles. Numerous chemical discoveries were, by far, some of the best serendipity and luck has often been cited as crucial to many important findings, but the ability of the discoverers to realize that something unusual has happened... and to question why it occured and how it could be useful... is of greater importance.
Perkin could not have anticipated that his experiment would eventually lead to not only to a hugh synthetic dye industry, but also to the development of antibiotics and pharmaceuticals. "Napoleon's Buttons" takes a look at Marker, Nobel, Chardonnet, Carothers, Lister, Baekeland, Goodyear, Hoffmann, Leblanc, the Solvay brothers, Harrison, Midgley, and others who have stories about their discoveries in the chemical industry making for some very interesting anecdotal stories.
"Napoleon's Buttons" has 17 chapters, making for some interesting reading, especially if you have a science background, you'll find this book enlightening, if for nothing else but the history of chemistry or better yet the chemistry in world history. This is an easy book to read and it has plenty of basic chemical structures that the authors use to explaine their points. Kind of like Organic Chemistry 101 but much simpler and well illustrated. "Napoleon's Buttons" shows us how unsuspected molecules have changed our world, for better or worse and how this affect hisory as we know it.
"Napoleon's Buttons" is a delightful read and is wonderfully readable book interwoven with events of history and how they have changed the course of human history to tranform society. This is a book that makes learning basic chemistry fascinating.
I gave this book a solid five stars for the reasons stated above and you'll enjoy reading about the way human society both paid the price and reeped the benefits. You'll find this book easy to rad and the authors do explain things enough so evan the layperson can follow along and get the jest of the story. I would recommend reading this book if you are taking any chemistry course.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Practical Real-World Chemistry, January 17, 2006
This review is from: Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History (Paperback)
What a fabulous book! This book does a great job of showing how something as mundane(to many people) as chemical formulae can determine the outcome of civilizations. High marks for making chemistry relevant and interesting. At times, some connections seem a bit too speculative for my scientific taste, but overall a fine book. I have read it twice now. If you like this book, you'll probably like "Uncle Tungsten" by Oliver Sacks
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Read!, November 19, 2003
By 
RI Reader "RI Reader" (N. Kingstown, RI United States) - See all my reviews
This book was a great read. As an physical organic chemist by training, the formulae were no difficulty, but I don't know how "civilians" would react. It is right up there with _Uncle Tungsten_ as far as books that I would recommend for chemically related cultural literacy. The stories are well told. The information is well organized, with helpful references to previous chapters. The emphasis on the social impacts of these compounds makes the book especially interesting to me (since my familiarity with the compounds is more from the technical side). If I were to find a slight deficiency in this book, it would be in the section on dyes, which does not mention food colorings (of which most that have been approved are no longer permitted).
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent read for anyone!, June 1, 2006
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This review is from: Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History (Paperback)
What a great book! If you've ever been curious about how people came to discover, develop, and use some of the things we take for granted in our everyday lives, this book is fascinating! If you teach science, it is a must read - so many hooks to get students interested in science while seeing the chemistry connections! If you don't teach, you will still like it, and the authors wrote it on a level every adult can comprehend.
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Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History
Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History by Penny Le Couteur (Paperback - May 24, 2004)
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