Thursday, October 1, 2009

Napoleon’s Buttons

Napoleon’s Buttons:
17 Molecules that changed the world.
(Book Commentry)
Authors: Penny LeCouteur & Jay Burreson (Pages: 375)

Title of the book often has an influence on purchase decision of the book. To me, this one sounded curious enough to be picked up.

Authors attribute the defeat of Napoleon’s army in Russia to the buttons soldiers used during their campaign. It was made of tin. Russian winter was so severe at that time, the buttons got pulverized and as a consequence soldiers were exposed to cold so much that, most of them perished and the war was lost.

In a highly chancy event like war, taking one factor like this as a cause is stretching beyond credulity. But then, it does make a good cover story to start with. Obviously, they did not miss the chance to mention the Challenger disaster where they attribute neglecting the molecular property of rubber as the cause of such a disastrous event saying “all for a want of ‘O’ ring”. As per them, that cold morning of Jan 1986, temperature was 15 degrees lower than previous launches and rubber would have lost its pliability. Having lost the original shape, it did not fit in properly and there by triggering the fateful leak. Since, no less than Physics legend Dr Feynman pointed fingers at this ring, I would rest my case.

Authors examine the following. (1) Peppers, Nutmeg and Cloves (2) Ascorbic Acid (3) Glucose (4) Cellulose (5) Nitro compounds (6) Silk and Nylon (7) Phenol (8) Isoprene (9) Dyes (10) Wonder Drugs (11) The Pill (12) Molecules and Witch craft (13) Morphine, Nicotine and Caffeine (14) Oleic Acid (15) SALT (16) Chloro-carbon Compounds (17) Molecule Versus Malaria
Each chapter is independent and hence you can read in any order, narration includes numerous anecdotes. Knowledge of Chemistry is required perhaps at a high school level.

When reading about Peppers, Dyes, Silk, Cotton etc, you cannot help but feel sad about child labor and other abuses these industries witnessed. To contain the inputs costs and to maintain the high profit margins, we as a race seem to have “exploitation” as a solution. How exploitation is used varies depending on the era – now, we have sweat shops instead of slave labor.
Authors clearly distinguish the two words, “Synthetic” and “Artificial”. From Chemical stand point, synthetic is a compound which is human made by chemical reactions. It may occur in nature or may not. If it does, synthetic version will be chemically identical to the natural source – for example, vitamin-C. The term, Artificial is applied to the properties of the compound. It would have a different chemical structure but its properties are similar enough to mimic the other’s role – for example, artificial sweetener does not have the same molecule structure of sugar but has an important property, in this case, sweetness to make it a good substitute.

The negative tendency reader would witness is the humans’ constant efforts to be in monopolistic regime in order be profitable without any time limit. To reach this goal, we humans have gone out of the way to keep a tight control over the key inputs. For example, destroying the lands where such resources are cultivated but not in their control, boil the seeds so that there is no scope of cultivating elsewhere before exporting them or at least soak in calcium to eliminate any chance of germination, execute people who try to smuggle the seeds etc. Eventually, the regime ends though.

On the positive side, when the demand is too high for natural compounds to be supplied or satisfied, the quest for synthetic or artificial stuff really zooms. For example, demand for ivory because of the exploding popularity of billiard game was too high to be met. They must be cut from the very center of the flaw free animal tusk and only one out of every 50 tusks provided the required quality and consistency. You can imagine the rate of depletion of elephants. First, it was a combo of wood pulp and bone dust coated with hard resin, then by Bakelite and eventually, it was replaced fully by thermo plastics fully. There are many such innovations like that – Nylon and host of polymers.

Chapter on SALT, I found it interesting. Having grown up in Tuticorin (perhaps the second biggest salt producing area in INDIA) for some time during my childhood, thereby taking the presence of salt just as ubiquitous and cheap as sand, it was indeed an awakening for me. There was a period (14th Century) where it was treated on par with the gold!
Chemical equation NaCl = Au (Chemistry fans would claim it is already an unbalanced equation, but I meant more from today’s commercial perspective) was too much for me. When I recalled Aluminum which was scarce during the Napoleon period and hence very precious so much so that, only royal folks were allowed to use it. Just like every dog has its day, it seems every element or compound has its day or eraJ.

Given the fact, this book was written much later after the book The silent spring, celebration of DDT was a surprise for me. Molecules and Witchcraft chapter was really good. Also,CFC effect was concisely explained.

Chemistry is a heavily an observational science with well designed experiments. I don’t know of any theoretical chemists who made it to Nobel. It is systematic study of nature’s inanimate side. Correct observations which are repeatable each time in various form of experiments holds the key. My school teacher used to warn or encourage (depending on your view point) us that, “Don’t take the equations I write or what is there in the book for granted. It happens like that and therefore we write those equations – not because we write that it happens”. It took quite a while for me to understand the profundity of the statement. He being a passionate Chemistry teacher was perhaps hoping that, we will take a stoic look at those equations and correct a few or come up with new ones as outstanding chemistry folks.

Scientist Ernest Rutherford famously said, “Physics is the real science, rest are just stamp collection”. Given the kind of impact chemistry has made on humankind, albeit I have majored in Physics, I may not really agree with him.

Given the anecdotal value this book delivers, it would be a very good read from your local library.

Thanks for reading this far.