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Lessons from the Past

David Goodstein

Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History. Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson. vi + 375 pp. Tarcher/Putnam, 2003. $24.95

Historians have debated forever whether history is governed by inexorable underlying forces or is made instead by individual heroes and villains. In Napoleon's Buttons, chemistry professor Penny Le Couteur and industrial chemist Jay Burreson have a bit of a different slant: History, they say, is made by molecules.

Take isoeugenol—the molecule that gives the spice nutmeg its special character (its near-twin eugenol does the same for cloves). That's just what the Dutch did: In the 17th century, nutmeg was considered precious—it grew only on the Banda Islands in the East Indies and was thought to protect against plague. With the Treaty of Breda, which ended the Second Anglo-Dutch War, the Dutch (who had prevailed militarily) secured a worldwide monopoly on nutmeg by forcing England to give up Run, the most remote of the Banda Islands. But the English did manage to get a little something in return: a lightly inhabited New World island called Manhattan.

For this physicist, reading Napoleon's Buttons was like being a kid accidentally locked overnight in a candy store. The treats? Lots of neat chemistry that I should have known but didn't (having had awful college chemistry teachers), a whole bunch of entertaining anecdotes and not a few breathtaking historical generalizations. Here's an example:

Cellulose is a polymer of glucose. We can't digest it, but it is the fiber that helps push other things through our guts. Rabbits and certain other rodents can't digest it on the first try either, but they can on the second, which is why they eat their feces. The authors observe that "This may seem, to us, a distasteful method of coping with the problem of the orientation of an OH group, but it obviously works well for these rodents." They go on to claim that cellulose, in the form of cotton, is the molecule responsible for the Industrial Revolution and the American Civil War.

Each of the 17 chapters tells us about a class of molecules and its role in human history. Spices (including the piperine molecule of pepper, as well as eugenol and isoeugenol) lured explorers across the seas; ascorbic acid, or rather the lack of it, caused scurvy and influenced who succeeded and who failed in exploring and claiming which lands; and so on, right down to chlorocarbons (useful for everything from refrigeration to transformer insulation) and quinine (an antimalarial).

Le Couteur and Burreson don't sugarcoat the chemistry. They take the trouble to teach us how to read those nifty diagrams organic chemists are always going on about, and they try their earnest best to show how the structures of various molecules lead to the properties of the materials that changed history.

The book's chapters deal with complex organic molecules. But Le Couteur and Burreson, as they explain in the introduction, were initially inspired by noting that metals have helped shape history. The title of the book is based on the hypothesis that Napoleon's invasion of Russia failed because his army's uniform buttons were made of tin. At temperatures below 56 degrees Fahrenheit, tin undergoes a structural phase transition and gradually disintegrates into powder. That, the authors say, is why paintings of Napoleon's soldiers in the snow always show them holding their uniforms together instead of fighting the Russians. Well, maybe or maybe not. Tin is not a molecule, of course, and neither is lead, which the authors say may have brought down the Roman Empire.

Any list of the 17 most important classes of molecules in history invites disagreements, or at least quibbles. For example, hydrocarbons are left out. Surely oil is as important as any substance on Earth to our recent history. The reason they were omitted seems obvious: Hydrocarbons may be important historically, but they aren't very interesting chemically. That's an important clue to what this book is really about.

This is not a book about history and chemistry. It's a book that uses, and sometimes abuses, history to teach chemistry. For example, the history of the Second Anglo-Dutch War and the Treaty of Breda is vastly more complicated than the story of Manhattan and Run islands suggests, and cannot, of course, be reduced to a single molecule. The real history involves heroes and villains and inexorable underlying forces, to say nothing of France, Denmark and Spain. But it is true that, for the next hundred years or so (until the nutmeg monopoly was broken), it must have looked as though the Dutch had gotten the better part of the deal, and it is also true that the Treaty of Breda changed New Amsterdam into New York. The historical anecdotes in Napoleon's Buttons may sometimes be simplistic, but they are always interesting and are an effective way of getting us to learn a lot of first-class chemistry.

Bottom line: The book is great fun to read.—David Goodstein, Physics, California Institute of Technology

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