Napoleon’s Buttons

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This is by far the most interesting book I’ve read this year (and is a definite contender for the “all-time” best, as well!)

The premise of the book is “17 molecules that changed history.” From cotton to caffeine, scopolamine to saponin, this book colorfully lays out both the chemical nature of these significant molecules, explaining how they function and WHY they work the way they do; it also illustrates the historical impact, going into great detail about how the course of history was heavily affected by the molecular properties of the topical substance.

The author explained in her introduction that her publisher had initially balked at the idea of using the actual chemical structures in the text — perhaps it was the intimidating look of an organic stick structure that threw them off; But Le Couteur does a terrific job of demystifying these seeming cryptic diagrams, using arrows, circles, and notations to indicate key differences in otherwise similar structures.

In spite of this, Le Couteur’s main focus in the book is not on the technical chemistry, but rather on the historical relevance.

I find that when I’m learning something, the more connections I can form with an idea, the stronger my memory — this book is a powerhouse in that regard; the knowledge of the structural nature of these compounds (at least the relevant functional groups, anyways) coupled with the historical relevance, creates memorable, almost mnemonic, impressions in my mind.

One of my favorite stories from this book was about Isoeugenol (one of the key chemicals in the common spice “Nutmeg”). Centuries ago, before America declared its independence, the English and the Dutch were top world powers. The Dutch’s East India Trading Company dominated the spice islands, Indonesian region, and pursued Captain Jack Sparrow to the edge of the earth. They also controlled Manhattan island (then called “New Amsterdam”).

The British controlled the isle of Run, a tiny island down n Indonesia, near Australia. It was a fairly non-descript island, save for one particular feature: It contained a LOT of nutmeg. At the time, both the Dutch and the British were dealing with the plague, and Isoeugenol, found in nutmeg was believed (somewhat correctly) to help prevent the spread of that disease.

After some fighting, some discussion, and some agreement, the two nations traded the isle of Run for Manhattan island. The plague passed, and everyone moved on. It is quite likely that Holland would have yielded New Amsterdam eventually anyways, since the British presence in the New World was more prevalent, but who knows how things would have turned out that way!

If you enjoy non-fiction, particularly historical or science-oriented, this book is a must read.