Saturday, February 14, 2009

‘Napoleon’s Buttons’ by Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson

With the title ‘Napoleon’s Buttons’ this book sounds like it is going to be a specialist book of interest to only a small group of military history enthusiasts (perhaps in the drapery business). It does indeed begin with a quirky sounding tale of why Napoleon’s soldiers were forced to retreat from Moscow and their numbers reduced in a matter of months from 600,000 to a bedraggled 10,000. I thought I knew already that this retreat was down to the harsh Russian winter. What I didn’t consider was that this pathetic turn of events may have been down to a want of understanding of chemistry. The tin buttons that fastened the great coats, trousers and jackets of Napoleon’s foot soldiers may have crumbled from a shiny metal to a grey powder – still tin but, due to the dramatic drop in temperature, in a completely new structural form. An observer in Borisov described the army as, ‘a mob of ghosts draped in women’s cloaks, odd pieces of carpet or greatcoats burned full of holes’. The soldiers may have been reduced to holding together their uniforms by hand, unable to fight or maintain their dignity.
This is no amusing history made up of anecdotes however. In the first chapter we are gently introduced to the language of chemical structure and formula and, aided by these beautiful portraits, we are introduced to the invisible characters of our history books.
We discover two chemical reasons why the lonely old ladies living at the edge of villages might have been considered and even consider themselves witches. We discover why the Portuguese didn’t explore the Pacific Ocean before Captain Cook – the same reason Commander Scott could not return from the South Pole.
The book takes a closer, and closer still, look at the molecules that make up our most prized possessions – the ones that, in a great part, caused slavery, wars, and empires to grow or tumble. If you love silk or olive oil, sugar or spices, you will appreciate them in an entirely new and wonderful way after reading about what it is about their chemical structure that makes them so very special.
There is an utterly charming story of how soap may have been rediscovered in Ancient Rome (traces of soap have been found in five thousand year old, Babylonian, clay cylinders along with instructions on its manufacture). Some women discovered that the river leading down from Mount Sapo was a particularly wonderful place in which to wash their clothes. When the rain came, the fats from the animal sacrifices from the temple upstream combined with the ashes from sacrificial fires and ‘saponified’ to give the perfect soapy water in which they could get their clothes really meadow-fresh clean.
I wonder why this is the only book I know to combine history and chemistry. It is a great pity so many history books shrink from telling us the full story using science. I am very glad I own a copy of this book. It will be read again and again.
Grade A
Lorna usually blogs at Socks and Books




  2. This sounds interesting, especially since we're studying chemistry right now. Will have to check it out.


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