One of the many cool things about a book club is it makes you read good books that for whatever reason, were off your radar. Take for instance Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson’s book Napoleon’s Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed History. Even though it was published way back in 2004 I’d never heard of the thing until the leader of our book club suggested we read it. After whipping through it in what felt like no time I sat asking myself why on earth did take me over a decade to encounter this book? It’s pretty darn good.
Both a science book and a history book, each chapter of Napoleon’s Buttons is devoted to a specific molecule that revolutionized the world. The molecules cellulose and sucrose, the main molecules in cotton and sugar respectively, would transform the economies and societies of both the New and Old Worlds. Nitric compounds in the forms of gun powder and other high explosives would be harnessed by the industrialized West to subjugate the globe, blast railway and highway tunnels and crack open the earth for mining purposes. As well as kill millions in two devastating world wars.
With Napoleon’s Buttons I enjoyed the authors’ scientific approach to world history. But I also came away from this book with a host of interesting factoids. For instance, I had no idea Europe was first introduced to caffeine not through coffee or tea but chocolate. Also, I knew the vitamin C deficiency scurvy plagued the European’s early attempts to explore and colonize the world, but I was unaware it was such a widespread and horrific scourge, sometimes killing off over half a ship’s crew. (I also didn’t know once the British finally learned supplementing their seagoing diet with vitamin C-rich foods could ward off scurvy it took over 50 years for them and other Europeans to make the practice widespread.) I also didn’t know the first nitroglycerine manufacturing plants kept blowing up and this lead to the development of the more stable and less dangerous explosive dynamite.
If you follow my lead and end up reading Napoleon’s Buttons I’d encourage you to follow it up with Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements and Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. Published in 2010, both books make science not just readable but fascinating and entertaining as well.