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Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History Paperback – May 24, 2004
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Women who use birth control pills probably care more about their effectiveness than about how they actually work, and although ignorance here may be bliss, it also cheats one of a good science story, involving a driven chemist making a serendipitous discovery about cortisone. Le Couteur and Burreson roll out 17 episodes selected for their salience in affecting health as well as history at large. This pair of chemists doesn't overinterpret a particular chemical as a historical influence but makes speculating on, say, piperene, a sporting diversion. Piperene is the molecule that causes taste buds to sting from pepper. Venice had a monopoly on the pepper trade, which rivals wished to break, motivating the voyages of discovery. Although connections frame the authors' tales (the title refers to tin buttons, which contributed to Napoleon's defeat in Russia), each story dwells on its molecular protagonist. The authors diagram the formula and shape of each, from the polymer behind the sheen in silk to the ionic bonds in the taste of salt. Well-conceived, well-done popular science. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the MP3 CD edition.
"Most of us never give a thought to ... the chemicals that have changed the world. This is brought out beautifully in Napoleon's Buttons, with its brilliant blending of chemistry and culture. I found it engrossing, and a delight to read."
"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
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Top customer reviews
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.