Napoleon's Buttons is the fascinating account of 17 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, Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson offer a novel way to understand the shaping of civilization and the workings of our contemporary world.
©2003 Micron Geological Ltd and Jay Burreson (P)2011 Tantor
"Well-conceived, well-done popular science." (Booklist)
Napoleon's Buttons is a well written book for a popular audience about the influence of organic chemistry and organic compounds on human history -- how rare is that! Like other books with similar content (e.g. The Disappearing Spoon), this book is structured to allow the listener stop and easily pick it up the flow later -- a good feature for commuters like me.
Regrettably, Laural Merlington's mispronunciation of countless chemical and other scientific terms really detracted from what was overall a fine performance. Example: She seemed to have a little trouble with her "a" sounds; she pronounced lactase "LACT ahhhz" -- fine if you're speaking French, but in English we use a long "a" as in "ace" -- and estradiol "es TRAY deeyol" -- I had to hear this word at least three times before I figured out what she was saying. (People familiar with this steroid say it "es trah DYE ol" -- because it is an estrogen steroid with two -OH groups on the steroid (i.e. a diol)). Another example: At one point during the discussion of antibiotics, she pronounced para-aminobenzoic acid "p amnio benzoic acid" at least six times in two consecutive paragraphs, even though she had said it correctly at a previous point. The upshot of all this criticism is that either the narrator or one of the other folks in the studio should have been a person with a scientific background, who would have known (and more important, would have cared) how to pronounce these words. It would have been ideal if one of the authors had narrated.
My one critique directed at the text itself is that the lengthy, preambular history of persecution of alleged witches in Chapter 12, on alkaloids, created an unnecessary delay on the way to the real content of this chapter: the historical connections to the compounds and their sources. This chapter would have stood up well on its own without the background information.
I was looking forward to this book and hoping it to be as informative and entertaining as The Disappering Spoon, but was disappointed. Instead of a history of molecules it was more a politcal commentary about the ramifications of slavery. I'm sorry I wasted my credit on it.
This book reads as if it were written by an undergraduate using Wikipedia and Google. sIt is heavy on facts (often trivia) and light on conceptual knowledge. Occasional errors of fact contribute to the feeling that the authors often lack a deeper understanding of the material they present.
There are too many speculative uses of "may have" and "could have" for my taste. The underlying conceit, that certain chemicals changed history, is a great overreach, even in the opening discussion of the tin buttons of Napoleon's army.
The following passage from the chapter on nitrogen-based explosives speaks for itself:
"In 218 B.C., the Carthaginian general Hannibal made his way through the Alps with his vast army and his forty elephants for an assault on the heart of the Roman Empire. He used the standard but extremely slow road-building method of the day: rock obstacles were heated by bonfires, then doused with cold water to break them apart. Had Hannibal possessed explosives, a rapid passage through the Alps might have allowed him an eventual victory at Rome, and the fate of the whole western Mediterranean would have been very different."
I counted eight grating mispronunciations of biologic and chemical terms. Otherwise the reader gives an acceptable performance.
I was given a hard copy of this book by a friend and had to read it. It's the first audio-book that I've listened to at 1.5X speed.
Had the authors chosen to stick to their premise of exploring the history and interactions of 17 important molecules, they might have written a great book
I find it troubling that the authors decided to link every molecule to the rise of slavery or the subjugation of women.
The use of a broomstick as a drug delivery device. I intend to check a copy of Remington's to see if this is a recognized way to administer a hallucinogen.
The history and the chemistry was quite fun.
The authors should write about chemistry as the slavery and subjugation of women genres already have enough members.
I have listened to two other great chemistry books (The Disappearing Spoon and uncle Tungsten), and this one is the best. The Disappearing Spoon is the most complete, with more elements and much more about the creation of the Periodical Table, and Uncle Tungsten is much more personal and anecdotal. But Napoleon's Button had the greatest descriptions and historical context to the chosen molecules. The importance of each molecule explained and the role it played in human history is clear and very well explained.
Great read, fabulous info, good narrative, history we never get in school.
The tin button fell apart under severe winter condition causing Napoleon's defeat - how simple.
Not recommended read for simpletons devoid of education in sciences, history and deprived of intellectual curiosity, I believe.
Unlike the previous reviewer I found this to be a more interesting book than ???The Disappearing Spoon???. Both are very good books, but I did learn a lot more from this book. A lot of knowledge is imparted through interesting stories with good narration. The authors do, perhaps, get a little more into the slavery issue than the book requires, but it is brief and in no way detracted from the chemical stories for me. It is not like they were preaching. I liked the book enough to listen again to get what I probably missed due to listening while driving. I highly recommend this book.
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