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American Scientist

Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson

Napoleon's Buttons

In Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History, Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson describe how different chemicals have played an important part in history.

The first chapter is about spices, whose active parts are very similar chemically, describing Other chapters look at medical molecules, inlcuding the pill, quinine, antibiotics and vitamin C - so important for long sea journeys. There are also chapters on salt - once so valuable it was used as money - and sugar, which played a central part in the slave trade. Often the story concerns looking for artificial forms of natural substances, such as rubber, dyes and nylon. There are also substances which have mixed benefits such as nitro-explosives, pollutants such as chlorocarbons and addictive substances such as nicotene and morphine (and even caffeine). The book also show how certain hallucinogens may explain some of the claims of witchcraft. Note that there isn't actually a chapter on Napoleon's button, tin being an element rather than a compound.

The book is easy to read (as long as you're not scared by chemical diagrams), but also very informative. It explains the chemistry of well known substances, describes important trends in history, and points out the links between the two. Highly recommended

Amazon.com info
Paperback 384 pages  
ISBN: 1585423319
Salesrank: 24258
Published: 2004 Jeremy P Tarcher
Amazon price $14.40
Marketplace:New from $10.27:Used from $3.49
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Amazon.co.uk info
Paperback 384 pages  
ISBN: 1585423319
Salesrank: 62885
Weight:0.85 lbs
Published: 2004 Jeremy P Tarcher
Amazon price £15.99
Marketplace:New from £7.92:Used from £3.99
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Amazon.ca info
Paperback 384 pages  
ISBN: 1585423319
Salesrank: 28215
Weight:0.85 lbs
Published: 2004 TarcherPerigee
Amazon price CDN$ 20.79
Marketplace:New from CDN$ 14.22:Used from CDN$ 6.36
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Product Description
Napoleon's Buttons is the fascinating account of seventeen groups of molecules that have greatly influenced the course of history. These molecules provided the impetus for early exploration, and made possible the voyages of discovery that ensued. The molecules resulted in grand feats of engineering and spurred advances in medicine and law; they determined what we now eat, drink, and wear. A change as small as the position of an atom can lead to enormous alterations in the properties of a substance-which, in turn, can result in great historical shifts.

With lively prose and an eye for colorful and unusual details, Le Couteur and Burreson offer a novel way to understand the shaping of civilization and the workings of our contemporary world.