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Napoleon's Buttons is the fascinating account of seventeen groups of molecules that have greatly influenced the course of history. These molecules provided the impetus for early exploration, and made possible the voyages of discovery that ensued. The molecules resulted in grand feats of engineering and spurred advances in medicine and law; they determined what we now eat, drink, and wear. A change as small as the position of an atom can lead to enormous alterations in the properties of a substance-which, in turn, can result in great historical shifts.

With lively prose and an eye for colorful and unusual details, Le Couteur and Burreson offer a novel way to understand the shaping of civilization and the workings of our contemporary world.
Published: Penguin Group on
ISBN: 9781440650321
List price: $13.99
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Yum. I love a good science book. This one had the perfect ratio of technical details to useless knowledge. It started to get a little repetitive towards the end, though, because when it comes down to it, there are surprisingly few compounds found in nature, especially since most of the ones in the book are organic.more
The cornerstone of the plot line is the interwoven story of human history and chemistry. The title is misleading since many more molecules are covered within each chapter. There is a definite author bias toward organic molecules and I wish other types of metals such as iron had been explored. I was very much disappointing with the title. The story of Napoleon’s button is mentioned as an anecdote in the prologue and as an afterthought throughout the rest of the book. The authors obviously know about chemistry even drawing clear picture of the compound listed. However, I found that they went into to too much detail about chemical reactions, for example isoprene. While at other times not explaining how chemicals worked, such as quinine. Overall I found the authors writing styles to be a bit dry and I would probably not read it again.more
A description of 17 sets of molecules that have played crucial roles in our world both now and in the past. Interesting but not earth-shattering. Like most of this genre of popular non-fiction, there are lots of interesting facts, however there is ultimately no storyline. But an interesting blend of social history and chemistry nonetheless.more
The subtitle, 17 molecules that changed history is a bit misleading in Napoleon’s buttons, a book by Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson. There are 17 chapters, each covering a molecule or a group of molecules with chemical and historical information. For example chapter 1 deals with peppers, nutmeg and cloves; several molucules are responsible for taste in this group. The chemistry of spices as well as the history of the spice trade is covered. This chapter explains why we speak English in the United States instead of Dutch.The introduction sets the stage for the book and also deals with basic chemistry. The authors explain what is necessary to know in easy to read language and the diagrams reinforce the concepts. However, those sections dealing with the chemistry of the compounds (an alternate term for molecules) in each chapter can be easily skipped without losing the narrative of the stories.From scurvy to synthetic fabrics to explosives, the authors take a new look at major events in the history of the world. And no, Napoleon’s buttons do not get a special chapter but are mentioned in the introduction. They may have changed history but I’ll let you read the book and decide.more
This is a fascinating blend of history and chemistry. The discovery of each molecule is given in detail, as well as how this discovery changed life. The illustrations and explanations of the molecules show how one little change can lead to a whole different action. In addition to the chemistry it weaves quite a bit of historical context into the molecule's stories.more
It was interesting, but I resented this book for misrepresenting itself. Its title offers discussing 17 molecules that changed history- much too grand a claim to what it actually offers. In reality, it discusses natural and man-made compounds like, for example, quinine or polymers in history and their impact on the development on specific areas of life. It was interesting though for what it offered, and I found molecules of witchcraft, spices- peppers, nutmeg and cloves, dyes, morphine, nicotine and caffeine most interesting of the lot.more
Molecules change history? Yes, definitely. While the title refers to the fact that the Napoleon’s retreat in Russia might have been influenced by the failure of the tin buttons on his men’s uniforms (thus making the army more vulnerable to the cold weather), that’s actually a minor effect of chemistry on history compared to most of the other ones in the book. The book starts with piperine, eugenol and isoeugenol, the molecules that give black pepper, cloves and nutmeg their flavor and kick. The quest for these molecules fueled world exploration and the discovery of the new world by Europeans. Ascorbic acid? That one made long ocean voyages feasible. Glucose and the lust for sweet things led to the enslavery of millions of Africans for sugar cane plantations. Cellulose not only helped fuel the slave trade (cotton plantations) but led to the discovery of nitrate explosives- TNT and dynamite. Phenol, as carbolic acid, acted as a germ killer than made surgery much safer. This is a fascinating blend of history and chemistry. The discovery of each molecule is given in detail, as well as how this discovery changed life. The illustrations and explanations of the molecules show how one little change can lead to a whole different action. If chemistry had been taught this way when I was in school, I might have passed chemistry!more
The title is a near miss. It's more like "17 kinds of molecules and their historical contexts". The history parts are feeble (some of the references are Time-Life series!), sometimes even laughable. Basically it just comprises speculation and anecdotes. The chemistry part, though, is great (I say this as one who knows almost nothing about the subject). The introduction explains, clearly, conventions of chemical representation, and the chapters make good use of that info. Without being more technical than necessary they explain critical differences and surprising similarities between different molecules. I might actually want this book.more
The authors go through 17 different types of molecules (most of them organic) which had an impact on human history. They focus a lot of attention on how small changes in the molecular structure can have large impact, such as turning a colorless powder into a highly successful synthetic dye, or turning a folk remedy for headaches into aspirin. They do a good job of walking the reader through the representations chemists use to depict molecular structure, and then using those drawings to highlight the subtle differences that can have huge impacts, both good and bad, on humanity. In addition to the chemistry, they weave in quite a bit of historical context to the discoveries.The one curious thing about the book is that, aside from a few paragraphs in the introduction, and a couple asides in the body of the book, neither Napoleon nor his buttons, are discussed.more
A very good introduction to the chemistry of some historically important substances, with a reasonably good introduction to organic chemistry for non-chemists. Some of the chapters tie into others reasonably well, while others the link is a little strained, but each individual chapter is quite well done. Some of the claims of the historical importance of the various compounds are a little overstated.more
This book has interesting historical anecdotes related to the development of the understanding of organic chemistry....from gun powder to dye stuffs and beyond. It was an interesting read, but bogged down somewhat by the emphasis on molecular structures if you're not a chemist.more
Did Napoleon's army fail to invade Russia for want of a better button on their uniforms?Chemisty has changed the course of history in ways that aren't always clear. Whether it be the chemicals that give nutmed its flavor or the chemicals that let women wear nylons instead of silk stockings, chemistry and chemical engineering have played a huge role in colonization, invasions, war, innovation, and leasure. If you are looking for a social history that's light on the science, you probably need to skip this one. LeCouteur sprinkles in lots of chemical symbols and ideas-not enough to loose a non-chemistry literatre reader, but enough to slow one down. Normally, she allows the story to get lost behind the beakers, though, to my disappointment.more
Did tin buttons that crumbled in the cold stop Napoleon's army? Or was it scurvy from lack of vitamin-C? Or lack of antibiotics for the wounded? Throughout history, there have been substances that have changed the world. The authors have chosen 17 types of molecules that have altered the course of nations, societies and cultures. Each chapter centers on one of the molecules, and it's very interesting that many of the molecules are interconnected.The authors take us on a fascinating journey through history and chemistry - starting with piperine, the stuff that puts the 'hot' in peppers and ending with the molecules that have conquered malaria. Both natural and synthetic substances are studied. The impact of natural substances like salt, caffeine, and olive oil reaches far past daily life and into the fate of nations. The search for synthetic substitutes has led to diverse products such as nylon, artificial sweeteners, the Pill, and Styrofoam. The impacts of several live-saving substances like vitamin-C and antibiotics are explored. Some compounds, such as DDT and Freon, that were originally seen as near-miracles have proven to be rather disastrous to the environment. Napoleon's Buttons explores the consequences for better and for worse, sometimes all in the same substance.The book starts with a very friendly overview of chemistry diagrams and terms. The authors provide a multitude of diagrams that show how various substances are similar and different. It's truly amazing how a tiny change in structure can completely alter the properties of a molecule. I think the diagrams are fascinating, but if you're not that interested in the actual chemistry, you can easily ignore them and concentrate on the stories that illustrate the effect of each substance. Le Couteur and Burreson entertain as well as educate with their well-chosen selection of anecdotes. Their writing is very understandable for the casual reader, but includes enough detail to satisfy someone with a stronger background in science.I don't usually comment on the look of the text, but I thought it was just outstanding in this book. Both the text and the diagrams are exceptionally clean and easy to read. The information is very well organized - it's easy to read each chapter as a self contained unit, but there's enough of a framework tying it all together to make it a coherent whole.5 Starsmore
Read all 13 reviews

Reviews

Yum. I love a good science book. This one had the perfect ratio of technical details to useless knowledge. It started to get a little repetitive towards the end, though, because when it comes down to it, there are surprisingly few compounds found in nature, especially since most of the ones in the book are organic.more
The cornerstone of the plot line is the interwoven story of human history and chemistry. The title is misleading since many more molecules are covered within each chapter. There is a definite author bias toward organic molecules and I wish other types of metals such as iron had been explored. I was very much disappointing with the title. The story of Napoleon’s button is mentioned as an anecdote in the prologue and as an afterthought throughout the rest of the book. The authors obviously know about chemistry even drawing clear picture of the compound listed. However, I found that they went into to too much detail about chemical reactions, for example isoprene. While at other times not explaining how chemicals worked, such as quinine. Overall I found the authors writing styles to be a bit dry and I would probably not read it again.more
A description of 17 sets of molecules that have played crucial roles in our world both now and in the past. Interesting but not earth-shattering. Like most of this genre of popular non-fiction, there are lots of interesting facts, however there is ultimately no storyline. But an interesting blend of social history and chemistry nonetheless.more
The subtitle, 17 molecules that changed history is a bit misleading in Napoleon’s buttons, a book by Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson. There are 17 chapters, each covering a molecule or a group of molecules with chemical and historical information. For example chapter 1 deals with peppers, nutmeg and cloves; several molucules are responsible for taste in this group. The chemistry of spices as well as the history of the spice trade is covered. This chapter explains why we speak English in the United States instead of Dutch.The introduction sets the stage for the book and also deals with basic chemistry. The authors explain what is necessary to know in easy to read language and the diagrams reinforce the concepts. However, those sections dealing with the chemistry of the compounds (an alternate term for molecules) in each chapter can be easily skipped without losing the narrative of the stories.From scurvy to synthetic fabrics to explosives, the authors take a new look at major events in the history of the world. And no, Napoleon’s buttons do not get a special chapter but are mentioned in the introduction. They may have changed history but I’ll let you read the book and decide.more
This is a fascinating blend of history and chemistry. The discovery of each molecule is given in detail, as well as how this discovery changed life. The illustrations and explanations of the molecules show how one little change can lead to a whole different action. In addition to the chemistry it weaves quite a bit of historical context into the molecule's stories.more
It was interesting, but I resented this book for misrepresenting itself. Its title offers discussing 17 molecules that changed history- much too grand a claim to what it actually offers. In reality, it discusses natural and man-made compounds like, for example, quinine or polymers in history and their impact on the development on specific areas of life. It was interesting though for what it offered, and I found molecules of witchcraft, spices- peppers, nutmeg and cloves, dyes, morphine, nicotine and caffeine most interesting of the lot.more
Molecules change history? Yes, definitely. While the title refers to the fact that the Napoleon’s retreat in Russia might have been influenced by the failure of the tin buttons on his men’s uniforms (thus making the army more vulnerable to the cold weather), that’s actually a minor effect of chemistry on history compared to most of the other ones in the book. The book starts with piperine, eugenol and isoeugenol, the molecules that give black pepper, cloves and nutmeg their flavor and kick. The quest for these molecules fueled world exploration and the discovery of the new world by Europeans. Ascorbic acid? That one made long ocean voyages feasible. Glucose and the lust for sweet things led to the enslavery of millions of Africans for sugar cane plantations. Cellulose not only helped fuel the slave trade (cotton plantations) but led to the discovery of nitrate explosives- TNT and dynamite. Phenol, as carbolic acid, acted as a germ killer than made surgery much safer. This is a fascinating blend of history and chemistry. The discovery of each molecule is given in detail, as well as how this discovery changed life. The illustrations and explanations of the molecules show how one little change can lead to a whole different action. If chemistry had been taught this way when I was in school, I might have passed chemistry!more
The title is a near miss. It's more like "17 kinds of molecules and their historical contexts". The history parts are feeble (some of the references are Time-Life series!), sometimes even laughable. Basically it just comprises speculation and anecdotes. The chemistry part, though, is great (I say this as one who knows almost nothing about the subject). The introduction explains, clearly, conventions of chemical representation, and the chapters make good use of that info. Without being more technical than necessary they explain critical differences and surprising similarities between different molecules. I might actually want this book.more
The authors go through 17 different types of molecules (most of them organic) which had an impact on human history. They focus a lot of attention on how small changes in the molecular structure can have large impact, such as turning a colorless powder into a highly successful synthetic dye, or turning a folk remedy for headaches into aspirin. They do a good job of walking the reader through the representations chemists use to depict molecular structure, and then using those drawings to highlight the subtle differences that can have huge impacts, both good and bad, on humanity. In addition to the chemistry, they weave in quite a bit of historical context to the discoveries.The one curious thing about the book is that, aside from a few paragraphs in the introduction, and a couple asides in the body of the book, neither Napoleon nor his buttons, are discussed.more
A very good introduction to the chemistry of some historically important substances, with a reasonably good introduction to organic chemistry for non-chemists. Some of the chapters tie into others reasonably well, while others the link is a little strained, but each individual chapter is quite well done. Some of the claims of the historical importance of the various compounds are a little overstated.more
This book has interesting historical anecdotes related to the development of the understanding of organic chemistry....from gun powder to dye stuffs and beyond. It was an interesting read, but bogged down somewhat by the emphasis on molecular structures if you're not a chemist.more
Did Napoleon's army fail to invade Russia for want of a better button on their uniforms?Chemisty has changed the course of history in ways that aren't always clear. Whether it be the chemicals that give nutmed its flavor or the chemicals that let women wear nylons instead of silk stockings, chemistry and chemical engineering have played a huge role in colonization, invasions, war, innovation, and leasure. If you are looking for a social history that's light on the science, you probably need to skip this one. LeCouteur sprinkles in lots of chemical symbols and ideas-not enough to loose a non-chemistry literatre reader, but enough to slow one down. Normally, she allows the story to get lost behind the beakers, though, to my disappointment.more
Did tin buttons that crumbled in the cold stop Napoleon's army? Or was it scurvy from lack of vitamin-C? Or lack of antibiotics for the wounded? Throughout history, there have been substances that have changed the world. The authors have chosen 17 types of molecules that have altered the course of nations, societies and cultures. Each chapter centers on one of the molecules, and it's very interesting that many of the molecules are interconnected.The authors take us on a fascinating journey through history and chemistry - starting with piperine, the stuff that puts the 'hot' in peppers and ending with the molecules that have conquered malaria. Both natural and synthetic substances are studied. The impact of natural substances like salt, caffeine, and olive oil reaches far past daily life and into the fate of nations. The search for synthetic substitutes has led to diverse products such as nylon, artificial sweeteners, the Pill, and Styrofoam. The impacts of several live-saving substances like vitamin-C and antibiotics are explored. Some compounds, such as DDT and Freon, that were originally seen as near-miracles have proven to be rather disastrous to the environment. Napoleon's Buttons explores the consequences for better and for worse, sometimes all in the same substance.The book starts with a very friendly overview of chemistry diagrams and terms. The authors provide a multitude of diagrams that show how various substances are similar and different. It's truly amazing how a tiny change in structure can completely alter the properties of a molecule. I think the diagrams are fascinating, but if you're not that interested in the actual chemistry, you can easily ignore them and concentrate on the stories that illustrate the effect of each substance. Le Couteur and Burreson entertain as well as educate with their well-chosen selection of anecdotes. Their writing is very understandable for the casual reader, but includes enough detail to satisfy someone with a stronger background in science.I don't usually comment on the look of the text, but I thought it was just outstanding in this book. Both the text and the diagrams are exceptionally clean and easy to read. The information is very well organized - it's easy to read each chapter as a self contained unit, but there's enough of a framework tying it all together to make it a coherent whole.5 Starsmore
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