- Paperback: 384 pages
- Publisher: TarcherPerigee; 1 edition (May 24 2004)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1585423319
- ISBN-13: 978-1585423316
- Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 2.5 x 22.8 cm
- Shipping Weight: 386 g
- Average Customer Review: 7 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #10,913 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Napoleon's Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed History Paperback – May 24 2004
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"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
About the Author
Jay Burreson, Ph.D., has worked as an industrial chemist and held a National Institutes of Health special fellowship for research on chemical compounds in marine life. He is also the general manager of a high-tech company.
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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.
A good diagram is much more interesting and effective than 5+ pages of "prose". Yuck. The authors have it right and the reviewer is just wrong.
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