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.”