Friday, June 25, 2010

Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History / by Penny Le Coeur & Jay Burreson

In 1812, Napoleon and his Grande Armée boldly, albeit naievely embarked on the most illustrious, most daunting and most elongated military expedition the European continent had ever seen. The campaign proved a disastrous failure as the stark, bitter elements of the Russian winter decimated much of the emperor's army. But what if something else, something smaller indirectly contributed to the deaths of so many soldiers and, subsequently, the demise of the French Empire? Say, like the buttons on the greatcoats worn by all members of the army, buttons made of tin, which is now known to be comprised of properties which disintegrate in extremely low temperatures. It's no mystery that the French soldiers were noticeably worse off than their conquered counterparts, many of them serfs or peasants who'd never worn any kind of buttoned apparel yet were more adapted to the elements dressed more layered, better fastened garments of wool and sheepskin.
Authors Le Couteur and Burreson, both chemists, not only believe in the seemingly somewhat far-flung correlation, but back up their hypothesis with hard scientific evidence, highlighting certain key groups of molecular compounds, particularly several very suspect alkaloids, which did the most damage. But 1812 wasn't the only time or place where molecules may have largely determined some pretty fascinating events. The book takes a very up-close look at some instances like the unlikely synthesis of heroin from Bayer Aspirin, or the inception of rubber used for tires from a combination of sulfur atoms and nitric acid, as well as numerous other interesting historical anecdotes. With short manageable sections, it involves chemistry at a practical level. So for people who may shrivel at the thought of having to learn any hard facts, it's not quite as foreboding. Uniquely, it shows, both visually and narratively, how 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 influence and even change dramatically the course of history. (540.9 LECOUTEU)

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