Feb 13

Book Review: Napoleon’s Buttons

Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed HistoryNapoleon’s Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History by Penny Le Couteur

This book is a combination of chemistry and anthropology/history of science. There are a lot of books out there, many of them well written, about the history of science and how scientific advances and discoveries changed changed civilizations, but very few books that mix in chemistry in a way that’s designed to appeal to the layperson. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a diagram of a molecule in any pop science book I’ve read, and I read voraciously on this subject.

After a quick overview of organic chemistry, the authors begin talking about spices such as pepper and nutmeg. They diagram the relevant molecules and describe their properties, then talk about how the search for the spice-producing islands sent European wayfarers around the globe. In a similar way, the authors touch on the other subjects: dyes and dyestuffs, sulfa drugs, CFCs, quinine, sucrose, etc. They talk about the nature of the molecule, talk about where it comes from, and then talk about how it impacted human societies.

As much as I liked the addition of chemistry into what is essentially a novel about history, the last time I had a chemistry class was in high school, which was over eight years ago, so the terms and descriptions weren’t familiar to me. If you have a science degree, or you were in a chemistry class more recently, these descriptions might be right at the correct level. (Or maybe they’re too simplistic and easy for you?)

As for the history aspects of it, I’ve read enough on the history of science and technology that most of these stories are ones I’d read before. They’re stories I enjoy, and these authors occasionally added more detail that I wasn’t aware of or had forgotten, but they were all stories I’d heard before. I knew about the search for artificial dyes, and about DDT’s role in eliminating malaria, and about how salt was manufactured in medieval times. So, while the chemical sections were too complex and difficult to follow at times, the history sections lacked as much depth as I wanted.

The writing flows well, and the range of terrain that NAPOLEON’S BUTTONS covers is broad, so most people who have an interest in science and the history of science will find something enjoyable about this book. If GUNS, GERMS AND STEEL is too daunting for you, you might find NAPOLEON’S BUTTONS a little more accessible. I recommend this for people who like science.

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