Chemistry courses, particularly introductory courses, often cover at least some history of the field. I remember learning straight facts like “Dr. x discovered y in…” or theory development like “Greek atomism was replaced by the plum pudding model, which in turn was replaced by the Bohr model.” Yet, minimal time is spent discussing how the discovery or creation of new chemicals impacted the world outside of the lab and shaped human history.
Despite my lack of interest in history, I have gained some piecewise stories and factoids over the years about chemistry’s impact on human history. It was after reading Napoleon’s Buttons: 17 Molecules That Changed History, by Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson, that I feel I can say I have an overview about the true history-shaping nature of molecules/chemistry.
Rather than being a chronological account, as with most history books, the molecules are the main characters in Napoleon’s Buttons. Each chapter is divided into different classes of molecules and their impact tracked from as early as 5000 BC to present day. The pursuit of specific atomic arrangements caused colonialism, vicious battles, and the end to these aggressions – particularly when just the right synthetic pathway was discovered. Our chemical history is not entirely bleak – chemicals have also been used to save innumerable lives.
One thought provoking trend introduced in the book is the recall of one-time ‘miracle’ molecules. DDT, CFCs, phenol and others were employed far and wide before their dangerous and accumulative effects were fully understood. Without committing to full blown conspiracy theories, this information makes me apprehensive of some recent chemical advances. I might think twice before I eat too much artificial sweetener, especially the chlorinated compounds like sucralose.
One critique I have of the book is that the title is a bit of a misnomer. Rather than focusing on 17 molecules they cover 17 classes of molecules, including dyes, nitro compounds, chlorocarbons, sugars, and more. Also, one of the chapters is dedicated to salts like NaCl and NaHCO3 which are technically not molecules because they lack covalent bonds.
For those seeking a book written specifically for chemists, Napoleon’s Buttons is probably not for you. It is definitely written for a more general audience. A seasoned veteran of chemistry can easily skip the few pages in each chapter that introduce structures (e.g. each corner is a carbon, what a polymer is and so on) and still gain insight into the historical context of the molecules.
I highly recommend this book, especially for teachers. It provides compelling anecdotes that will not only tie lessons together, but also demonstrate the importance of the work that we as chemists are doing.