PENNY CAMERON LE COUTEUR, PH.D., teaches chemistry at Capilano College in British Columbia, Canada, where she has been a professor for over thirty years. Winner of a Polysar Award for Outstanding Chemistry Teaching in Canadian Colleges, she was formerly the head of Capilano's chemistry department and was chair of pure and applied sciences. She has written chemistry distance-education courses, coauthored a chemistry textbook, and served as a project adviser in chemistry for universities in eastern Indonesia. She was born in Auckland, New Zealand, and now lives in North Vancouver. JAY BURRESON, PH.D., has worked as an industrial chemist and held a National Institutes of Health special fellowship for research on chemical compounds in marine life. He is also the general manager of a high-tech company.
The anecdote of the titular buttons is related in the introduction: supposedly, the tin buttons on the uniforms of Napoleon's army became brittle and disintegrated in the cold Russian winter, contributing to his defeat. Le Couteur, a chemistry teacher, and Burreson, an industrial chemist, expand this theme to explore how chemical properties of compounds have altered history. The impacts run the gamut from medicine (e.g., penicillin, vitamin C) to social change (e.g., the contraceptive pill and slavery perpetuated by the farming of glucose, or sugar cane, and cellulose, or cotton) to more direct historical incidents such as the Opium Wars or the spice trade spurring New World exploration. The authors violate the dictate of modern popular science writing that proscribes including chemical formulae but to good effect-by showing the structures of the compounds, they convey how shapes affect function. This book devotes more space to fewer substances than John Emsley's Molecules at an Exhibition, but it doesn't fall into the hyperbolic monomania of other popular "chemicals-that-changed-the-world" books like Simon Garfield's Mauve. Recommended for public and academic libraries.-Wade M. Lee, Univ. of Toledo Libs. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
"Well-conceived, well-done popular science."
"The authors unearth a wealth of anecdotes from all parts of the world and use them effectively to illustrate the technological underpinnings of modern society. Thoughtful, often surprising, smoothly written."
"Entertaining accounts of how various objects' chemical properties might have changed history."
"What does the fiery compound C17H19O3N have to do with the discovery of North America? Plenty, according to this remarkable collection of scientific sleuthings. The book's cases -- especially the chapter blaming Napoleon's disastrous Russian campaign on the eponymous tin fasteners that failed to hold French uniforms together -- unfold like CSI meets the History Channel. A splendid example of better reading through chemistry. B+"
"This book is both original and fascinating; I was quickly absorbed by this refreshing mix of science and history; I learned a lot of both and read this book quite quickly for a science book."
--The Literary Flaneur