Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History


Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson




Date Reviewed:

January 4, 2014

apoleon's Buttons describes seventeen simple types of molecules and explains their effect on human history. The title refers to the fact that the French soldiers in Napoleon's Army wore greatcoats that were fastened with tin buttons. In extreme cold, such as Napoleon encountered on his march to Moscow, tin grows brittle and crumbles, and thus the buttons that held the coats closed would have disintegrated, exposing the soldiers to the lethal cold. Could the lack of buttons have contributed Napoleon's defeat and changed the course of history? Tin isn't one of the molecules described in this book (it is an element), but this introductory story is meant to illuminate the important part materials play in world events.

This book describes seventeen different molecules. The book shows a simple drawing of each molecule. What is interesting about these drawings is how simple many of the molecules are, just a couple of atoms bound together. What I liked was when they explained how slight changes in the molecular structure can change the chemical properties. Simply attaching an Oxygen-Hydrogen pair at a different point on a chain can make an entirely different behavior. Or sometimes all it takes is changing the orientation of the attached atoms - right handed or left handed can be crucial.

The chapters of this book are:

Peppers, Nutmeg, Cloves - this chapter talks all about the spices that drove the European Age of Discovery. Spices were worth a great deal in the Middle Ages, because they could be used to disguise the bad flavor of spoiled food. Without refrigeration, food didn't last long, especially through the long winters, but people still had to eat.

Ascorbic Acid - this is the history of vitamin C and scurvy. Scurvy was a major debilitator, and not just on sailing ships. It took centuries to discover that citrus fruits were a crucial part of a healthy diet. Captain Cook and the British navy figure prominently in this chapter.

Glucose - sugar was a huge source of wealth. Europe acquired a sweet tooth, and to meet the huge demand, giant sugar plantations were started in the New World. This gave rise the evils of the slave trade, which certainly had reprecussions that echoed down through history and around the globe.

Cellulose - cotton is cellulose, which was a major reason for the Industrial Revolution (textile mills). Cellulose is also an essential component of gun powder, which of course had tremendous effect on history.

Nitro Compounds - when nitro compounds are combined with gun cotton in the previous chapter, the result is gunpowder, which certainly had an explosive effect on human history!

Silk and Nylon - the molecular structure of Silk is what gives it the luxurious sheer smoothness, and makes it so desirable for clothing. Nylon is a synthetic answer to the natural silk molecule.

Phenol - this was the first antiseptic, used to kill bacteria and prevent infections.

Isoprene - this is the chemical that gives rubber all of its desirable characteristics. When combined with sulphur, rubber is used in elastics, tires, balls, gaskets, etc.

Dyes - color fast synthetic dyes gave rise to our bright clothing, paints, and everything else.

Wonder Drugs - this chapter talks about salicilic acid, sulfa drugs and penicillin, which had a tremendous result on human life expectancy and epidemics.

The Pill - Norethindone is the first oral contraceptive. By changing the amount of the hormone Progestesterone in a woman's body, it could disrupt the ovulation cycle and prevent pregnancies.

The Molecules of Witchcraft - this chapter talks about Alkaloids, which can have hallucinogenic properties. People who accidently ingest these toxins can believe all sorts of strange things, such as that the old woman who harvest herbs actually flies on a broomstick at night.

Morphine, Nicotine and Caffeine - more talk about alkaloid molecules. These addictive substances effect human behavior and mood.

Oleic Acid - Olive oil was highly desirable because it lasted longer than other oils, it is tasty to cook with, and also has painkilling properties. It was a staple of early Mediterranean cultures such as the Greeks and Romans.

Salt - Although salt today is cheap and common, it was a prized possession during ancient history. Salt was so valuable it was called white gold. The word "salary" is derived from the same root as the word for salt, this is because Roman legionaires were sometimes paid in salt. Famous cities grew up near salt mines - such as Salzburg and La Salle. Salt was useful not only as a flavor enhancer, but it was also essential for the preservation and storage of food before there was refrigeration.

Chlorocarbons - although today CFCs are recognized for the damage that they do to the ozone layer in the atmosphere, at the time of their discovery they had a major effect of allowing refrigeration, which lead to food preservation and the ability to ship perishable items from all over the globe without spoiling the food. Many more people can be fed, and much less food is wasted.

Molecules vs Malaria - this chapter talks about the scourge of malaria, and how it devastated tropical populations, but also places such as colonial America. This led to the discovery of Quinine, an alkaloid from the bark of Cinchona tree. Eventually a synthetic form of quinine, chloroquine, was invented. This chapter also talks about DDT, which was used to kill the mosquitos which spread malaria, but had a devastating effect on the natural environment.