Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History

Review: “Napoleon’s Buttons” by Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson

Thumbs up for Napoleon’s Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History by Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson. Science/nature.

It showed up as five stars on the Goodreads feed of someone I know, and I had just happened, the day before, to see a copy lounging around at the bookstore where I work. I was in the mood for nonfiction, so it was a happy confluence of events. If you read nonfiction, I’d call this light (and delightful) reading; in some chapters I got the sense that I’d already read a lot of the history somewhere else (but then I’m the kind of person who reads Kurlansky’s Salt). I did learn more about chemistry in just the first chapter than I’d ever known before. Very entertaining, and I’ve no doubt that little things I learned here will be cropping up in my brain for years to come. For example, about the fascinating and contradictory Fritz Haber, leader of Germany’s gas warefare program during WWII:

“Haber saw little difference between conventional and gas warfare and was greatly upset by the controversy. In 1933, as director of the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry, he was ordered by the Nazi government of Germany to dismiss all Jewish workers on his staff. ln an unusual act of courage for those times, Haber refused, citing in his letter of resignation that ‘for more than forty years I have selected my collaborators on the basis of their intelligence and their character and not on the basis of their grandmothers, and I am not willing for the rest of my life to change this method that I have found so good.’ “


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