Customer Review

71 of 71 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Better Living Through Chemistry, October 7, 2004
This review is from: Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History (Hardcover)
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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