Several years ago I read Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson’s , a book of popular science whose title came from a theory about Napoleon’s botched invasion of Russia during the winter. The theory goes, as Le Couteur and Burreson reported, that the buttons of Napoleon’s soldiers, which were made of tin, turned to powder in the extreme cold, thus exposing their tender torsos to the wind. Though it seems implied, the authors don’t come down strong on either side of the historical reality of this. Though the confluence is in doubt—indeed, it seems unlikely—the individual components of the tale are true: there were a lot of dead Frenchmen that winter, and tin—a perfectly solid metal under normal conditions—does turn into powder in extreme cold.
I happened upon Napoleon’s Button entirely by accident when I was looking for cover art for His Excellency: George Washington; was so intrigued by the premise promised by the book cover that I decided to read it. It seemed right up my alley: chemistry and history mixed together, perhaps reminiscent of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.
What Napoleon’s Buttons is about, in brief, is a look at 17 different molecules or groups of molecules that have been historically important. The author(s) attempt to explain the chemistry that makes these molecules unique or interesting, with liberal use of diagrams and the occasional superfluous black and white photos of olive trees or whatnot. The additional information, and what promised to be the redeeming value of the book, is how these compounds have played out in history. The introduction cites Napoleon’s army being soundly discouraged and defeated in their attempt to march into Russia, perhaps because the tin used in the buttons on French military uniforms crumbles in cold (read: Russian) weather, meaning that the French soldiers suffered from poor clothing and eventually death and illness from the harsh climate. Disappointingly, even though the authors return to Napoleon’s army on several more occasions, including with regard to ascorbic acid (read: scurvy), the story of the tin buttons is never actually covered in a chapter. I’m not sure why that bothers me, but it does.
The chemistry here is good, and very interesting. That being said, the historical content seems tacked on: it takes a particular talent the blend the two well, and I’m afraid the authors of Napoleon’s Buttons just don’t have it (yet). Usually, each chapter begins with a brief teaser, and then the middle section consists mostly of chemistry—what molecules bond with what, &c.—with some history built in. What bothers me most, stylistically, is the chapter “conclusion,” which hearkens to middle school in its subtlety: reiterate the chapters main points and conclude, in essence, “[Molecule] is a very important molecule.” Ho-hum. Same format every time.
The book becomes gradually more complicated as it progresses, starting with relatively simple things like glucose (sugar) and ascorbic acid (vitamin c) and ending with things like chlorofluorocarbons. What was interesting to me was the way in which the historical importance of a molecule was not based on a binary value judgment: the chapter about quinine (the very important cure for malaria), for instance, revisits the compound DDT, a chlorocarbon known mostly for its harmful environmental impact but which the author credits with saving at least 50 million people from malarial death by its ability to kill mosquitos. CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) were responsible for a dramatic increase in the quality of life before it was discovered that they harmed the ozone layer.
The Pill was discovered largely by accident, in an attempt to cheaply produce steroid compounds (not the sort that athletes take, but medicinal steroids). Olive oil may have been one of the most important
compounds of the ancient world. The use of lime juice or other vitamin C-rich foods on sea voyages virtually eliminated the existence of scurvy among crews who used it.
I can’t help but feel a little disappointed by Napoleon’s Buttons, which has good science but fell short of the expository standard to which I tend to hold books like this (set, again, by the fabulous Bill Bryson). This is a very high bar, so my criticism shouldn’t be taken as a negative review: this book is still both highly interesting and well-written by most standards, and I recommend it as an engaging reading and a good chemistry primer that isn’t dry and boring.