Chemistry Blog



Aug 29

Molecules that Changed History

by Kenneth Hanson | Categories: chemical education, fun | (26283 Views)

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.

This is understandable. There was plenty to cover and to be honest history was never my favorite subject anyway.

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.


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  1. azmanam

    Cool! Thanks for a new addition to my reading list. I read through a book called A Chemical History Tour: Picturing Chemistry from Alchemy to Modern Molecular Science that did kind of the same thing, but by analyzing art and artifacts throughout chemical history.

  2. LMK

    salts aren’t molecules? that’s news to me. i’m in a lab of phd students and it’s news to all of us.

  3. Kenneth Hanson

    It turns out that the definition of molecule is difficult to pin down and has been changed many times.

    Many general chemistry text books define it as requiring a covalent bond as summarized by wikipedia.

    Here are the definitions for molecule and molecular entity from IUPAC. By these definitions of molecule I guess it depends on what you are talking about when you say salt. If it is a cation and an anion spatially defined as with an ion pair it might be classified as a molecule.

    The IUPAC definition of salt is an chemical compound consisting of an assembly of cations and anions, suggesting that multiple cations and anions are necessary. If it is a repeating lattice with no defined size I would argue that it is not a molecule.

    I guess the short answer is that I don’t have an exact definition but as salts are discussed in the book I am still leaning towards the chapter on salts not being about molecules.

    Is there a lawyer in the house?

  4. Fist

    @LMK: I am a (5th year) Ph.D. student in chemistry, I am in a lab of post docs as well as highly cited senior scientists, but this should hardly matter if I am capable of forming an argument all by myself, correct? As someone whose job it is to apply free thought to existent knowledge, and from this generate new knowledge, it is apparent to me that your ability to philosophically debate science is at best, a disappointment. Just because you’re surrounded by people who agree with you doesn’t make you correct, it makes you a bad scientist because you think you can win an augment by unreasoned consensus. You (well maybe not you, but a good scientist) should make a point by providing evidence, sources, and logical deductions, three things that are decisively missing in your poorly thought out ‘comment’. You don’t say, “oh, everyone around agrees with me so, i’m right”. What if everyone around you is just as unable as you? Think for your self, make your point, and have a logical thought process behind it. If I was on any committee which was judging your aptitude as a scientist, and you gave that answer to anything, I would fail you, in spades for your crimes against the scientific method (as well as your 2nd grade style of argument). I award you no points and may god have mercy on your soul.

  5. chemista

    We actually use Napoleon’s Buttons as a required organic text where I teach (Mercer University). I just picked up The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kern. I haven’t gotten too far into it, but so far it’s got engaging writing, solid science and interesting history. You might enjoy it.

  6. Kenneth Hanson

    @ Chemista
    Several people over also suggested The Disappearing Spoon. It is now on my to-do list. I am looking forward to it.

  7. dani

    great post…. keep it up!!

  8. LMK

    …and this is why I don’t comment on blogs. I was just saying that it was news to us; I wasn’t trying to argue a point at all or say that salts are or aren’t molecules. It was more along the lines of “hmm, interesting that some people don’t call salts molecules.” And in a lab full of pchemists, we aren’t often thinking of bonds and such, so it led to an interesting discussion between me and my colleagues along the lines of Kenneth’s response. I didn’t mean to say anyone was wrong (sorry if it came off that way) and I definitely didn’t come here to be ridiculed. So calm your tits.

  9. Honclbrif

    I found Disappearing Spoon to be a fun read if I turned the chemist part of my brain off, but I recall some pretty glaring issues that made me write all over the margins. Several involved simplifications to make the text accessible to the general public, but others were genuine falsehoods or mistakes. However, I did particularly enjoy the part about molybdenum and how around WWI the Germans tried to steal a mountain in Colorado to corner the world’s supply. Also, never realized that Gilbert Lewis had such a sad life.

    I’ve enjoyed several books written by John Emsley. Try starting with The 13th Element.

  10. chiropractor redondo beach

    Cool Post this reminds me of my student days and experience of the subject chemistry..

  11. Anonymous

    While NaCl is a salt that has no covalent bonds, the same cannot be said for NaHCO3. The bicarbonate ion (HCO3) most certainly has covalent bonds, including C-O sigma, C-O pi, and O-H sigma bonds.

  12. Dangerous Bill

    Disappearing Spoon is loaded with factual errors. A quick read through Chapter One should convince you. On the other hand, the history anecdotes are good reading, but one wonders if they’re actually correct, given the paucity of chemical knowledge.

  13. Anonymous

    What are the 17 molecules?

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