- Paperback: 384 pages
- Publisher: Jeremy P Tarcher; Reprint edition (May 24, 2004)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1585423319
- ISBN-13: 978-1585423316
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars See all reviews (191 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #14,088 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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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 Audio 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
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.
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.