Napoleon's Buttons: Introduction

Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History - Jay Burreson, Penny Le Couteur

Napoleon's Buttons:  17 Molecules that Changed History by Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson is this month's Flat Book Sciety Book Club reading selection.

 

The introduction specifically states what the author's were attempting to do with this book and provides all that you need to know in terms understanding drawn chemical structures that appear in the book.

 

The author's state that they want 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 has 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 novel approach to understanding the growth of human civilization. A change as small as the position of a bond—the link between atoms in a molecule—can lead to enormous differences in properties of a substance and in turn influence the course of history. So this book is not about the history of chemistry; rather it is about chemistry in history."

 

"We will explain why we believe certain molecules were the impetus for geographic exploration, while others made possible the ensuing voyages of discovery. We will describe molecules that were critical to the development of trade and commerce, that were responsible for human migrations and colonization, and that led to slavery and forced labor. We will discuss how the chemical structure of some molecules has changed what we eat, what we drink, and what we wear. We will look at molecules that spurred advances in medicine, in public sanitation, and in health. We will consider molecules that have resulted in great feats of engineering, and molecules of war and peace—some responsible for millions of deaths while others saving millions of lives. We will explore how many changes in gender roles, in human cultures and society, in law, and in the environment can be attributed to the chemical structures of a small number of crucial molecules."

Le Couteur and Jay Burreson provide an interesting example in the introductory chapter:   That of the Treaty of Breda in 1667 where the Dutch ceded their only North American possession (New Amsterdam) to England in exchange for the small island of Run in the Moluccas to consolidate their trade in nutmeg and other spices.  They explore why nutmeg was so valuable in Europe (food reservation and mecinal purposes, especially during the plague) and why this value is dependent on the chemical characteristics of the spice (the pungent smelling isoeugenol produced as a pesticide by the plant).  In the end, the authors ascribe "the exploration and exploitation that accompanied the spice trade, the Treaty of Breda, and the fact that New Yorkers are not New Amsterdamers" to the chemical contributions of the compound isoeugenol.

 

The introduction provides a brief summary of the chemistry terms and molecular structures drawn in this book.  The chemical diagrams are there to illustrate the differences and/or similarities between compounds, and as such, the relevant parts of the structure are clearly indicated with an arrow. 

 

In the authors' own words:  "we will compare structures to show how they differ and how they are the same, and we will show how extremely small changes to a molecule sometimes produce profound effects. Following the connections among the particular shapes and related properties of various molecules reveals the influence of chemical structures on the development of civilization."

 

This book looks to be a fascinating intersection of history and chemistry.