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Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History Paperback – May 24, 2004
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With lively prose and an eye for colorful and unusual details, Le Couteur and Burreson offer a novel way to understand the shaping of civilization and the workings of our contemporary world.
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Disclaimer #2: That was many, many years ago and I've forgotten a lot...but not everything.
Okay, let's move on to my review.
I like the "Napoleon's Buttons" part of the title and there are several references to said buttons throughout the book. However, the second part "How 17 molecules Changed History" is misleading. The book discusses a lot more than 17 molecules. In fact, in some chapters it seems to focus on chemically and structurally related molecules while in others it discards the nature of the molecules and focuses on their behavior and usefulness to humans. Still, in either case it does outline their effects on WESTERN history, seldom mentioning anything past the Middle East. Maybe that's fair, maybe not. It is hard to believe that the Japanese and Chinese did not have chemists or use minerals and herbs for the same purposes as the western world. Also, being somewhat fluent in the history of the Mongol people, I know that the Mongolian empire brought many Chinese inventions to India, Russia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Mongolia is not mentioned in the book though. Anyway, I think the focus is on western civilization at the expense of the rest of the world.
For me, the history and the historical effects of these groups of molecules is fascinating. I don't remember learning any of this stuff either in school or in my subsequent work. I remember one time on Bill Mayer's show, Bill asked Neil deGrass Tyson if he didn't think the passage of the Affordable Care Act was a major milestone in human history (or something like that). Tyson replied that no, there are so many more important events, the discovery of antibiotics for example that are much more important. The real history makers, the real heroes who improved the human conditions were scientists. How true that is! And yet we hear little about them. Their stories are not discussed in school. In fact, the effects of their discoveries is passed over because they have become such a mundane part of our everyday lives.
How readable is this book? I don't know what the non-scientific, or even non-chemist, would make of this. There are a lot of chemical terms and drawings of complex molecules that may be difficult to understand in spite of the introduction explaining how to read them. The authors do highlight important aspects of the chemicals but what that means to the average reader I have no idea.
Do I recommend this book? Yes and no. Don't think it is going to be a light read of your typical historical events. It is much more difficult to understand chemistry than history. in my opinion. I gave it three stars because of this difficulty. For myself or other people with a chemistry background, particularly organic chemistry, I would rate it as a four. It doesn't get a five because it rambles.
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.
Meanwhile, due to the usefulness of and demands for spices, sugar, and addicted substances, humans beings exploit each other, culminating in the practice of slavery.
So many chemicals have done good, but the same have done harm through folly and greed.
These are all clearly delineated in this book. There are lots of historical and biographical facts. The chemistry of the substances described are touched upon in a very basic manner. No previous knowledge of chemistry is required. A fascinating book, if not at times depressing, on what human beings have achieved so far.
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