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Napoleon’s Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History by Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson

February 28, 2011

When we think of history and history changers, we often think of people. Maybe laws, like Brown v. Board of Education, or devices, like the computer. Molecules generally are not the first thing that come to mind.

Maybe they should be.

Just as metals have changed the course of history (gold, bronze, iron, anyone?), so have molecules. In Napoleon’s Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History, authors and chemists Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson delve into seventeen groups of molecules, explaining their historical importance and chemical makeup.

Take spices like pepper, nutmeg, and cloves. They were so important to Europeans, and so expensive, that kingdoms launched fleets of ships searching for their source and new trade routes. What made them so desirable? In chapter one, Le Couteur and Burreson breakdown both the historical and chemical reasons for this, as well as how the world changed as a result.

One side effect of long journeys over the open ocean was scurvy. (Well, perhaps “side effect” is not a strong enough phrase, since scurvy could be lethal.) Scurvy is caused by a deficiency of vitamin C, ascorbic acid–the subject of chapter two. It turns out that most vertebrates produce ascorbic acid in the liver. Since primates—including humans—do not, we must ingest it in some way as part of our diet, whether from oranges or industrially manufactured pills.

(Let me tell you, as someone who used to watch James Burke’s Connections2 and Connections3, and is a fan of microhistories, I love reading about these kinds of relationships.)

We are then introduced to rest of the molecules first by their historical context—why is it so important in terms of world history?—before Le Couteur and Burreson examine its chemistry. In addition to describing how different molecules are bonded, they include diagrams of chemical structures, which helps readers spot similarities between them. Considering each chapter is around 20 pages long, they pack a lot of information into the book while keeping it very readable. The historical sections clearly detail their rationale for inclusion, and while the chemical explanations are at times complex, overall, it’s enough for laypeople to get the gist of the hows and the whys.

The authors acknowledge the choice of which molecules to include were personal ones and that the “book is not about the history of chemistry; rather it is about chemistry in history.” As such, it omits major figures like Humphry Davy, who would certainly appear in books “about the history of chemistry.” Depending on your personal interests, you may find some chapters more fascinating than others, and some chapters were heavier on the chemistry than the rest.

As for the title, it comes Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812. One theory to explain the French army’s failure is that tin buttons were used on their uniforms to fasten trousers, jackets, and greatcoats. In cold temperatures, tin disintegrates into powder, which obviously would not keep clothes fastened and therefore increased the soldiers’ exposure to the cold. There are several problems with this theory, though, one of them being that “the disintegration of tin is a reasonably slow process.” (If it’s elements that you’re interested in, pick up Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon, recommended by another Guys Lit Wire blogger last year.)

Book source: public library.

Cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 28, 2011 7:51 am

    This sounds WAY cool. I had an odd geek fetish for history mysteries like that – the real ones, wherein there’s one of those “everyone says it” kinds of things (like about Napoleon’s nipple ring he’s allegedly fondling in all of his pictures) vs. the actual truth ferreted out by actual historians. I love the thought that tin in cold goes to powder! But seriously – I can’t see it happening over a single winter, although that was a particularly cold one, we’re told…

    Okay, must read this book.

  2. February 28, 2011 10:16 am

    I love how very little things can change history. Like, I was that kid who was fascinated by scurvy in class. I also thought cholera was interesting, we learned all about that in biology after playing a murder mystery game in 8th grade. It was AWESOME.

    I really like the sound of Napoleon’s Buttons and will have to add it to the non-fiction I actually want to read list.

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