Wook Kim
May 16, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History

type
Book
Current Status
In Season
author
Jay Burreson, Penny Le Couteur
genre
Nonfiction

We gave it a B+

What does the fiery compound C17H19O3N have to do with the discovery of North America? Plenty, according to this remarkable collection of scientific sleuthings. Said substance, piperine, is the active ingredient in pepper. Five centuries ago, Venetian merchants realized that their newly discovered condiment could mask the unpalatability of preserved foods and established a monopoly in its trade. When they heard the New World was loaded with rich spices…well, you know the rest. 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.

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