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Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History

3.91  ·  Rating Details  ·  2,827 Ratings  ·  297 Reviews
Though many factors have been proposed to explain the failure of Napoleon's 1812 Russian campaign, it has also been linked to something as small as a button-a tin button, the kind that fastened everything from the greatcoats of Napoleon's officers to the trousers of his foot soldiers. When temperatures drop below 56F, tin crumbles into powder. Were the soldiers of the Gran ...more
Kindle Edition, 394 pages
Published May 24th 2004 by Tarcher (first published 1991)
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(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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t-rex
Aug 31, 2008 t-rex rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science, 2008
The seventeen molecules:

1. Peppers, Nutmeg, and Cloves
2. Ascorbic Acid
3. Glucose
4. Cellulose
5. Nitro Compounds
6. Silk and Nylon
7. Phenol
8. Isoprene
9. Dyes
10. Wonder Drugs
11. The Pill
12. Molecules of Witchcraft
13. Morphine, Nicotine, and Caffeine
14. Oleic Acid
15. Salt
16. Chlorocarbon Compounds
17. Molecules versus Malaria

Now, I happened to (mostly) enjoy my time spent in the trenches of orgo, so I'm looking forward to reading this book.

Post-reading: this is fantastic. There's often been too much
...more
Pete mohan
Aug 08, 2007 Pete mohan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: chem/science fans, history of industries, people who think they're smart
If you like Organic chemistry like i do, have a short attention span like i do, and have a passing interest in the economic, political, and cultural histories of textiles, dyes, and pharmaceuticals - you too may enjoy this nicely written non fiction work
Merilee
Apr 07, 2011 Merilee rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Did the Russians defeat Napoleon because the French army's tin buttons decomposed in the cold Russian winter? It's hard to fight when you're having to hold your pants up and your coats closed.
Kathy Davie
Jan 15, 2013 Kathy Davie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, non-fiction
Non-fiction exploration of scientific elements which had an effect on life throughout the history of man.

Writers searching for conflict to use in their stories may well want to buy this volume for the multitude of possibilities.

My Take
This was excellent. Couteur/Burreson beautifully provided a look at how history was affected along with an examination of the actual molecules---and I do mean a microscopic look at the molecule! I'm a history geek so I adored that side and, it's saying something, w
...more
Rex
Apr 18, 2010 Rex rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
This books takes a somewhat disjointed ride through how seventeen loosely defined classes of molecules changed world history.

I was intrigued by the book's premise - not to describe the history of chemistry, but rather to reveal the chemistry of history. The book does an admirable job of assembling anecdotes of interesting molecules that have affected our world. Unfortunately, the structure of the book is a bit disjointed, the tone is uneven, and the numerous stories could use either some additio
...more
Jimmy
Dec 10, 2014 Jimmy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
This book would fit well in an introduction to chemistry class. I'd recommend it for teenagers who want to learn some chemistry before taking a class in high school. Here are a few interesting tidbits from the book:

Is it possible that the buttons on Napolean's troops' jackets moving into Russia disintegrated in the cold? Maybe. But it was also a stupid military move.

People hung nutmeg around the neck to ward off bubonic plague. It may have warded off fleas.

Ships were manned above capacity to
...more
Kelley
Apr 30, 2008 Kelley rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The title of this book may put some readers off but for those that like looking at history as more than just a bunch of dates and dead people, it is a fascinating read.

The title comes from speculation that the tin buttons used by the French army may have decomposed as result from exposure to bitter cold during the Invasion of Russia. When Napoleon's Buttons (or at least those of his army) crumbled, the soldiers could not keep their coats closed and thus were further exposed to the weather. By lo
...more
Theresa
Aug 20, 2014 Theresa rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
In high school (...and... okay- college, too) I was not, um, very "academically inclined." Indeed: I was a slacker and I have never-ever taken a chemistry class. Which could be why I liked this so much; somehow it was presented in a way that was just right for me.

I had assumed that I was going to sail through life interested but forever dumb in regards to chemistry. Basically, I would be restricted to reading biographies about chemists and what they did, never really grasping any of it.

So this
...more
Jane
Nov 25, 2012 Jane rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is an unusual take on history. You don't have to be a scientist to enjoy it -- but it helps if you are a little bit interested in chemistry, too. The title is illustrative: We all know that thousands of Napoleon's men died on the long march back from a Russian defeat in winter. But did you know that the army's uniforms had buttons made of tin? Tin crumbles like an old cookie when the temperature falls below a certain point. So Napoleon's men could not keep their coats buttoned and froz ...more
Tim
Aug 23, 2015 Tim rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
On one level, fascinating. It is about scientific discovery of molecules, the search to synthesize, and the properties that make certain substances extremely valuable and useful.

Thus, for example, the probing and understanding the value of absorbic acid (vitamin C) and how it works on the human body. Its discovery and value stemmed from the debilitating and deadly presence of scurvy - the nemesis of sailors - and its use removed one of the challenges of exploration.

Napolean's army lost reliable
...more
Gypsy
Apr 19, 2011 Gypsy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
If you like James Burke's show Connections (on BBC), you will love this book. Lots of molecular diagrams throughout the book, enough to make any chemistry enthusiasts giddy.
Mimi Wolske
Jul 18, 2015 Mimi Wolske rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: everyone who likes history and science
Recommended to Mimi by: Max H. Richard Wolfe
Napoleon's Buttons: 17 molecules that changed history
Penn7 Le Couteur & Jay Burresbon
copyright: 2003
pages: 376

Ohhh, so that's why that happened!

I had a lot of those moments as I read the little details that huge events turned on; yes, even when they were chemistry related.

The book talked about the chemical history of silk and nylon, of certain spices, and the witch trials. AND, it flowed easily and managed to keep the technical jargon to a minimum. That made the information presented acces
...more
Lori
Jul 07, 2010 Lori rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I have a degree in chemistry and I love to read about chemistry and the history of chemistry. I was so excited when I heard about this book! Unfortunately, it was a huge disappointment for me.

Let me start by saying that this book is NOT the story of how 17 molecules changed history. A simple look at the chapter titles will tell you that:
1. Peppers, Nutmeg, and Cloves
2. Ascorbic Acid
3. Glucose
4. Cellulose
5. Nitro Compounds
6. Silk and Nylon
7. Phenol
8. Isoprene
9. Dyes
10. Wonder Drugs
11. The Pill
12.
...more
Lia
Some hit and miss with this book.

I really enjoyed the background histories of these elements. Five stars on this aspect.

Where is short in my opinion is in the science part. I picked up this book thinking it would talk a lot more of organic chemistry and going deeper than what was usually written for us the casual reader. I would like to learn more without I'm having to go back to college for it. At glanced it was very promising but in the end it just fell short. Three stars on this aspect.

Wit
...more
Helga Mohammed el-Salami
I had known about this book for some time but simply did not believe that a couple of organic chemists could possibly write a captivating history. I am now printing out that sentence so I can eat it. This was one of the most original spins on world history that I have ever read.

Drs. Le Couteur and Burreson do indeed fill a hefty number of pages with diagrams of chemical structures and formulae but none of them are essential to the understanding of this book. It is absolutely a book on history, n
...more
Eric
May 16, 2014 Eric rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I teach high school biology and physical science. Seriously, this book will shape my teaching. Honestly never took time to think of how items like silk, a basic and simple protein, shaped the world.

A very cool read for the science-minded. The book constantly dives into the chemical structures of compounds and how this helps their success in our world. It also explains many interesting phenomena (ex. The sugar molecules glucose, fructose, and galactose each "fit" to a chemical receptor in our sw
...more
Edgar Avalos
Sep 23, 2015 Edgar Avalos rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2015
This book is about chemistry in history. Brilliantly written narrative of how several chemical inventions changed the course of history and how the people behind these inventions, sometimes inadvertently, contributed to drive entire nations towards making and sustaining wars and to make peace. Even if the reader is not interested in chemistry, this book offers a lot to learn in terms of history.

My favourite part is probably the chapter on Magellan and his crew of 256 sailors on their quest to tr
...more
Tony
Mar 01, 2015 Tony rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
NAPOLEON’S BUTTONS: How 17 Molecules Changed History. (2003). Penny Le Coureur & Jay Burreson. ****.
As ide from an awful title, this study by these authors is a good introduction to many of the compounds isolated from natural sources that led to breakthroughs in the way we lived our lives. It is, in other words, the history of specific aspects of organic chemistry confined to the identification and resultant purification of molecules that became of great use to civilization at their time. Th
...more
Mark Stidham
First, the positives. There is much breadth in both chemistry and history that is covered. The material goes all around the world and all through human history. The journey is idiosyncratic and only loosely connected through chemistry. There is just enough connectivity to bind the material, allowing one to make sense of the direction. I found the bit of jumping around in history and chemistry fun and stimulating rather than confusing.

Another feature I enjoyed was the presentation of some of chem
...more
Peter Spencer
Aug 25, 2015 Peter Spencer rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"We decided to write this book to tell the stories of the fascinating connections between chemical structures and historical episodes, to uncover how seemingly unrelated events have depended on similar chemical structures, and to understand the extent to which the development of society had depended on the chemistry of certain compounds. The idea that momentous events may depend on something as small as a molecule- a group of two or more atoms held together in a definite arrangement- offers a no ...more
K. Bird
Nov 05, 2014 K. Bird rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Just enough science to make lit major me have to reread certain paragraphs, but enough human interest and historical speculation to keep me engrossed.

And if that doesn't entice you, check out some of the jacket copy claims:

Did you know that the Bayer company, seeking an even more potent aspirin, was the first to synthesize heroin? OR that the European craving for caffeine may have led to the chinese communist revolution? Can you name the spice the Dutch traded to the British in return for New Yo
...more
Laura Burroughs
Oct 02, 2014 Laura Burroughs rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History is a nerdy book. I loved it because I am the nerdiest of of the non-Mensa crowd. But this book-parts of it at least-should be read by everyone. Each of the 17 chapters in this book focuses on a different molecule and it's impact on world history. I especially recommend Chapter 3, Glucose, and Chapter 11, The Pill. For enthusiasts of The Middle Ages, Chapter 12 is a must-read. Some of the chemistry might be too arcane for history buffs, but the ...more
Alex Bard
Aug 07, 2014 Alex Bard rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The main idea of this book is that the course of human history was significantly altered by certain molecules. It puts science and history together seamlessly, and it makes you realize that a lot of the everyday things that we take for granted actually are because of certain chemicals and reactions. We have refrigerators because at some point someone realized that you can mechanically condense and evaporate certain chemicals, leading to a cooking effect, for example. The book is not very technic ...more
Cleo
Jan 13, 2014 Cleo rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"Though many factors have been proposed to explain the failure of Napoleon's 1812 Russian campaign, it has also been linked to something as small as a button-a tin button, the kind that fastened everything from the greatcoats of Napoleon's officers to the trousers of his foot soldiers. When temperatures drop below 56F, tin crumbles into powder. Were the soldiers of the Grande Armée acutee fatally weakened by cold because the buttons of their uniforms fell apart? How different our world might be ...more
Sarahj33
Nov 16, 2014 Sarahj33 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
This book is not a history of the study of chemistry, although that would surely be interesting. Rather, it is a look at different facets of history through a chemical lense, highlighting how different chemical compounds have affected outcomes in history. It starts out with a discussion of how the search for spices and sugar fueled the Age of Exploration, and moves through 15 other groups of molecules, all the way through some modern pharmaceuticals and chlorofluorocarbons.

To a certain extent t
...more
Daphne
Nov 03, 2015 Daphne rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: own-audio, quest
Pretty interesting book. All chapters had something new and interesting in them. Even if some of the molecules/history is something I already knew about. Very well written overall.
C.bear249
This isn't really a book that hooks you with the plot or characters or anything like that but it was interesting all the same. I like how the chapters can be read in any order. I only really read what I was interested in. I liked the chapter on Isoprene and Morphine, Nicotine and Caffeine best and I learned lots of interesting facts like how heroin was invented and marketed as "super aspirin" before it was realized to be one of the most addictive drugs known. This book is good for curious people ...more
Melanie
Jul 13, 2015 Melanie rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, science
Disclaimer #1: I have a degree in biochemistry. I worked in both chemical and biochemical research for ten years including work with several of the compounds and procedures discussed in this book.

Disclaimer #2: That was many, many years ago and I've forgotten a lot...but not everything.

Okay, let's move on to my review.

I like the "Napoleon's Buttons" part of the title and there are several references to said buttons throughout the book. However, the second part "How 17 molecules Changed History"
...more
Kat
Feb 20, 2015 Kat rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
3.5 rounded down to 3

This is a well-written book with an interesting premise, which largely fulfills its premise. The molecules (or rather, classes of molecules) were well-chosen, there were many fascinating stories to tell, and they were woven together in a way that made sense. However, I think that this might be a more interesting book to a layperson; as someone with a degree in biochemistry I found some of the science a bit too basic. I was also annoyed with some factual errors and misuses of
...more
Shawn
Mar 29, 2015 Shawn rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: owned, science
An interesting read and rather well done.
The authors follow various compounds, both natural and man-made through their effect on history. The history was often enlightening and the author took the time to explain the science in such a way that it would be accessible even to those with a very limited science background. The arrangement was interesting as, rather than chronologically, the authors chose to sort the topics by their connections (sometimes tenuous when between chapters). Personally I
...more
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“Alkaloids are natural fungicides, insecticides, and pesticides. It has been estimated that, on average, each of us ingests about a gram and a half of natural pesticide every day, from the plants and plant products in our diet. The estimate for residues from synthetic pesticides is around 0.15 milligrams daily—about ten thousand times less than the natural dose!” 0 likes
“ingestion of only one nutmeg describe nausea, profuse sweating, heart palpitations, and vastly elevated blood pressure, along with days of hallucinations.” 0 likes
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