Le Couteur: Napoleon's Buttons (2)

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Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson, Napoleon's Buttons : How 17 Molecules Changed History. New York : Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2003. 375 pages with selected bibliography; copiously illustrated with molecular diagrams and photographs.

This book sounded really neat--the subtitle is "How 17 Molecules Changed History"--and I’ve been meaning to read a pop chemistry book for awhile now. I was so excited to get this home from the library and start reading! Unfortunately, the book doesn’t live up to its premise.

When I saw that the book was co-authored, I assumed it was by a chemist and a historian, which makes perfect sense considering the subtitle. However, both the authors are actually chemists. Now I don’t want to be mean, and obviously both of these authors are very intelligent (they each have a PhD in organic chemistry!), but they really would have benefited from working with a historian as well. The book is about half-and-half science and history; while the science is very advanced, the history is basic and generalised at best. This extreme difference in analytical levels made me feel off-kilter for most of the book, which frustrated me tremendously.

My other main problem with the book was the writing style; it definitely would have benefited from a harsher editing process. While each chapter is nominally focused on one molecule, the authors actually look at a whole family of molecules and jump about seemingly at random. This scattered approach made it much more difficult for me to understand what the authors were talking about than necessary. Not only was the topic-choice problematic, but the science and history weren’t integrated well either. As a book aimed at non-chemists, I think it’s very important for the authors to justify why the science matters; due to the poor ties between the science and history this justification was missing most of the time. The poor book suffers from a complete lack of transitions. Additionally, each chapter ended with a concluding paragraph that felt like it was a rushed add-on when the authors remembered these molecules were supposed to change the world and could have been pulled from a standard, five-paragraph high school essay. Let me give you an example:

From Vasco de Gama’s defeat of the rulers of Calicut, through the conquest of the Aztec Empire by Hernan Cortes and a handful of Spanish conquistadors, to the British army’s Light Cavalry Brigade charge of Russian field batteries in the 1854 Battle of Balaklava, explosive-propelled weapons have had the advantage over bows and arrows, spears, and swords. Imperialism and colonialism--systems that have molded our world--depended on the power of armaments. In war and in peace, from destroying to constructing, for worse or for better, explosive molecules have changed civilization.

See what I mean? The simplicity of them almost demeaned the complex science that came before, and I found myself increasingly frustrated by each concluding paragraph (not that I don’t sympathise--when I write essays, I always think conclusions are the hardest part). And the lack of flow with the rest of the chapter, stylistically especially, just contributed to the book’s disjointedness. Oh, and often times the concluding paragraph would bring up a new topic that is never discussed again, leaving me wondering why it was there in the first place.

All of that being said, I did learn an awful lot of neat things. For example, pepper comes in three colours: black (fermented, unripe berries), white (dried, ripe berries), and green (pickled, just-ripe berries). Other colours are artificially dyed or aren’t peppercorn berries. Or that it’s possible people like spicy food because of the endorphins (opiate-like compounds) produced by our brains in response to the pain of the spiciness. And did you know that lead acetate was the first artificial sweetener? The Romans used it to sweeten wine (of course it was poisonous). And cholesterol is a steroid! If you’re a complete nerd like me, all of the ‘notable passages’ at the bottom include more of these fun, though random, facts.

And the actual science of the book is intense and rigorous--it includes lots of diagrams, which the introduction walks you through so they make sense. I tend to like my science reading to lean towards the more intense, so I was quite happy with that. My favourite chapter was "The Molecules of Witchcraft"--I think it’d be great as a stand-alone essay.

In the end, though, I can’t say I’d recommend Napoleon’s Buttons--there was too much frustration for it to be a great reading experience. I learned worthwhile stuff though, so if you’re willing to overlook simplistic history and poor writing, the science is great. Or you could borrow it from the library just for the one chapter.

Notable Passages

The statement that "cotton breathes" has nothing to do with the passage of air but everything to do with the absorbency of water by cotton. In hot weather perspiration from the body is absorbed by cotton garments as it evaporates, cooling us down. Clothes made from nylon or polyester don’t absorb moisture, so perspiration is not "wicked" away from the body, leading to an uncomfortable humid state.

Later investigations into the severe headaches suffered by workers in the explosives industry showed that these headaches were due to the dilation of blood vessels caused by handling nitroglycerin. …We now know that in the body nitroglycerin releases the simple molecule nitric oxide (NO), which is responsible for the dilation effect. Research on this aspect of nitric oxide led to the development of the anti-impotence drug Viagra, which also depends on the blood-dilating effects of nitric oxide.

Extracted from seeds of the cotton plant, gossypol has been shown to be effective in suppressing sperm production in men, making it a possible candidate for a male chemical birth control method.

Synthetic vanillin is not just a chemical imitation of the real thing; rather, it is pure vanillin molecules made from a natural source and is chemically absolutely identical to vanillin from the vanilla bean. Vanilla flavoring obtained from using the whole vanilla bean does, however, contain trace amounts of other compounds that, together with the vanillin molecule, give the overall flavor of true vanilla.

Saffron is still grown in Spain, where each flower is still hand-picked in the traditional way and at the traditional time, just after sunrise. The majority of the crop is now used for the flavoring and coloring of food… Because of the way it is harvested, saffron is the most expensive spice in the world today; thirteen thousand stigmas are required to produce just one ounce.

A number of experts have concluded that ergot poisoning was ultimately responsible for the accusations of witchcraft against some 250 people (mainly women) during 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts. The evidence does indicate an involvement of the ergot alkaloids. Rye was grown in the area in the late seventeenth century; records show warm, rainy weather during the spring and summer of 1691; and the village of Salem was located close to swampy meadows. All of these facts point to the possibility of fungal infestation of the grain used for the community’s flour. The symptoms displayed by the victims were consistent with ergotism, particularly convulsive ergotism: diarrhea, vomiting, convulsions, hallucinations, seizures, babbling, bizarre distortions of the limbs, tingling sensations, and acute sensory disturbances.

In the early part of the twentieth century a different method of pain control in childbirth gained rapid acceptance in Germany and quickly spread to other parts of Europe. Twilight Sleep, as it was known, consisted of administration of scopolamine and morphine. A very small amount of morphine was administered at the beginning of labor. It reduced pain, although not completely, especially if the labor was long or difficult. Scopolamine induced sleep and, more important for the doctors endorsing this combination of drugs, ensured that a woman had no memory of her delivery. What seems so bizarre about this campaign now is that women believed the claims that Twilight Sleep removed the agony of childbirth, allowing the mother to awake refreshed and ready to welcome her new baby. In reality women suffered the same pain, behaving as if no drugs had been administered, but the scopolamine-induced amnesia blocked any memory of the ordeal.

-- Notes by EVA

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