Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Napolean's Buttons: How 17 Molecules changed history

How could Napolean’s buttons have changed history?  Tin buttons were used to fasten greatcoats, jackets, and trousers of Napolean’s troops.  In extreme cold, as they faced in the Russian campaign,  tin buttons deteriorate.  Some theorize that as the buttons disintegrated the troops were overcome by the bitter cold, with their hands holding jackets closed, instead of holding weapons.

This theory, though a trifle weak in its arguments, caused the authors to investigate 17 molecules whose impact on history is decidedly more direct and traceable:  molecules that were the impetus for geographic exploration, made voyages of discovery possible, spurred advances in medicine, cause the deaths of millions of people, and saved the lives of millions of people.

Pepper and aromatic spices, though common to us now, were rare in Europe until fairly recently, and their lure spurred dangerous exploration, built empires and made fortunes.  Ascorbic acid, or lack thereof, almost killed the spice trade.  Over 90% of Magellen’s crew didn’t survive his circumnavigation of the globe, most succumbing to scurvy, a horrific disease caused by lack of vitamin C.  Entire ships were discovered floating at seat, the crew all dead from scurvy.

The authors discuss glucose’s (or sugar’s) role in the industrial revolution, silk’s impact on trade, and phenol’s role in modern advances during the Age of Plastic.  Nitro compounds, caffeine, molecules in herbs—all are traced with fascinating detail about their impact on our history and the lives and world we experience today.

Just the title will tell you that if you like science or you like history, this book is a good find for you.   You can read it all, or just the chapters—or molecules—that most interest you.   If you’re into chemistry and detail they give you that, but if you aren’t interested, you can easily skip it.    I gave this book to a friend of mine who was going back to school to become a nurse, and was dreading organic chemistry. After she read this, she said she wasn’t afraid of chemistry any more.   Whether you like chemistry or not, if you’re at all curious about history, you’ll find something to like about “Napolean’s Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History.”

Monday, December 6, 2010

Time Travel

What historian wouldn't want to go back in time and observe events and life as they actually happened?  Well, time travel has been invented and historians are traveling through the time net from Oxford to places and events important in history.  The net prevents anyone from going to any place where they could actually change history, and they won't send anyone to a convergence point--a place and time that is critical to history, such as Dunkirk or the Normandy invasion or Bletchley Park, where the British broke the German's code.

World War II and related events are popular with many historians, and as they slip into the net to complete their planned assignments in England during the war--Dunkirk, the London Blitz, VE Day--we follow them as they try to blend in with the locals during harrowing times.  What an opportunity to learn history first-hand, and see if the history books got it right.

But slippage does occur--historians may end up a few minutes earlier or later than planned.  And the slippage is growing--into hours and days...Historians' plans are being canceled or rearranged.  And if, in fact, a single beat of a butterfly's wings can alter the planet, what would a historian do if he saves the life of a man at Dunkirk who wasn't supposed to live?  Or saves two children from boarding the orphan ship to Canada that she knows will sink?  What happens if you inadvertently alter history so drastically that the war ends differently?  And what if you are in danger of never being able to go home because events are changed to much that time travel is never invented?  Where--and who--are you then?

Connie Willis' "Blackout" and "All Clear" novels--really, two parts of a single story--are an exciting blend of history, suspense, and science fiction.  The characters are so real and lieable, their worries so understandable and worrisome...well, the whole thing is just so darn plausible; they are "what if" extraordinaire.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Christmas in Harmony, by Philip Gulley

Take a couple parts “A Christmas Story”, mix it with a couple parts “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever”,  add a dash of Garrison Keillor and you’ll come close to “Christmas in Harmony” by Philip Gulley.

The minister at the Society of Friends church in Harmony doesn’t quite know what he’s gotten into when he agrees to church elder Dale Hinshaw’s scheme for progressive Nativity scene instead of the traditional scene in the churchyard.  Minister Gardner’s house is to have some of the livestock, which is delivered three days early because that’s the only day Dale could get the truck—oh, and they should save the manure to be used in someone’s garden.   (His wife packs up the pig and takes it back the next day—Jews wouldn’t have had pigs, anyway, she says.)  

 He looks up into a tree to find Dale stringing up a mannequin from the department store for the heraldic angel—but the manager won’t let him change the mannequin’s clothes so the angel is harking wearing jeans and a plaid flannel shirt.  But it all seems quite in keeping with the whole scene.

Maybe I just needed a good laugh when I read this, but I laughed until I cried.  It’s one of those books that your family hates for you to read because you want to keep reading the funny parts to them but you’re laughing so hard they can’t understand a word you’re saying. 

The characters are quirky and the situation hilarious, but the heartwarming message will bring a smile to your face, and to your heart.   I may make reading this a Christmas tradition in my house.  Welcome Christmas to your heart with Philip Gulley’s “Christmas in Harmony.”

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Beekeeper's Apprentice, by Laurie R. King


Sherlock Holmes as you've not seen him before--He has met his match in a 15 year old American girl, Mary Russell.


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