January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Book Review: Napolean’s Buttons

Posted: Tuesday, October 1st, 2013

by Walter O’Brien

Napoleon's Buttons Book CoverThe history of witch-hunts throughout Europe and North America during the 17-century has been well documented. Students across the United States have been taught that witch-hunts stem from a gamut of reasons such as religion and land acquisition. Yet in reality, witch-hunts served as a scapegoat for illnesses and/or natural disasters that were inexplicable at the time. Individuals accused of witchcraft included men, women and children, outcasts or prominent members of society and they consequently faced great danger and were often tortured. In certain recorded situations, those accused of witchcraft were tossed into a body of water and if the accused drowned, they would be deemed innocent; however, if the accused managed to float they would be pronounced guilty and punished further. Le Couteur and Burreson examine the issue of witch-hunts and provide a refreshing scientific reason for why some individuals were branded as witches in the first place. The authors declare that some “witches” were merely herbalists that dabbled in herbal concoctions to alleviate aliments of the time and in reality the first homeopathic remedies can be attributed to individuals branded as witches. The active compounds in herbs affected historical events and phenomena such as witch-hunts, and this message is at the center of their book, Napoleon’s Buttons.

To understand the background of witchcraft, Le Couteur and Burreson adopted an ethnographic and scientific methodology that requires only a minimal amount of background knowledge from the reader. They provide a background story and then present molecular structures with their metabolism and/or properties in order to explain historical events. In the case of witchcraft, the molecules herbalists unknowingly used are now known to be powerful cardiac glycosides, poisons, or psychoactive drugs. The active ingredients in herbs such as foxglove (atropine) and mandrake (scopolamine) produce effects in the body which the user would feel as they are placed “under a spell”. For example, some witches were known to believe they could fly and even induce a trance. The chemical explanation here as presented by Le Couteur and Burreson could be attributed to the physiological effects of certain plant alkaloids such as Lysergic acid (a derivative is known as LSD) and Ergotaminie. These two active ingredients are products of Ergot fungus found in a town’s supply of spoiled rye.

Sixteen other molecules the writers believed influenced historical events, like the ones in witchcraft, are presented in similar fashion.  The emphasis in each episode is how the chemical structure plays a role in its property. Moreover, the emphasis is extended to show how slight changes in the topic molecule can form derivatives with similar properties and uses. Some of these derivatives are molecules that many of us are familiar with such as salt, morphine, cholesterol, and heroin, (just to mention a few), which further fuel the reader’s interest. Information like this makes the book enjoyable because the structures presented are analyzed in a simplified manner for the high school level to adult reader without a chemical background.

Napoleon’s Buttons is a great supplemental book for any high school chemistry student.  A nice aspect to the book is that each chapter is independent of the others.  Thus, I am able to apply, out of order, any chapter in the book to complement the units I teach in the class. For instance, during the bonding unit taught in class, I assign the chapter on salts. Aside from covering the idea of ions and how they form crystal lattice structures, it also explains why in early human civilization salt was as valuable as gold is today. My students concurrently take a history class, and the book also does an excellent job in tapping into their prior knowledge of geographic and historical events.  Evaluation of their reading comprehension is performed through a Socratic seminar (class discussion) followed up by a quiz, essay or student presentation of what they learned.

This book is a must for any chemistry curriculum that needs a literacy component. Its cross-curricular emphasis highlights the importance and influence of chemistry outside the classroom. Use of the book can be tailored for college preparatory to advanced students.

Napoleon’s Buttons: Penny Le Couteur & Jay Burreson. New York: Penguin Putnam, 2003.

Walter O’Brien teaches Chemistry at Santa Fe High School in the Whittier Union High School District and is a member of CSTA.

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

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