Napoleon's Buttons, by Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson

Location: Ms. Pinkowski's Room

Group Members:
Daniel Keliher
Jacob French
Rachel Nixon
John O'Gorman
Claire Fouchereaux
Pam Pinkowski

1) Introduction

2) Run Through Chapter Whip

- Each person lists one of the chapters below
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 of Witchcraft
13. Morphine, Nicotine, and Caffeine
14. Oleic Acid
15. Salt
16. Chlorocarbon compounds
17. Molecules vs. Malaria

- Describe each chapter
- Make sure to include important historical events, dates, or important chemistry facts.
- Go around the group to make sure each chapter is briefly covered

3) Ten Words or Less (work either alone or in smaller groups)

- Describe your overall impression of the book.
- What did you find interesting?
- Favorite chapter?
- Did you prefer the science or the history aspect?
- Overall to you agree with the authors? Did these molecules change the world to the extent that the authors profess?

4) Passages

- Each person reads a passage they find interesting or significant (no repeat passages).
- That person shares why they find the passage interesting and any reactions they have to the passage.
- In a whip style, everybody shares their reaction to the passage that was just shared (with room for free discussion).
- Are there any connections between the passages shared? What themes emerge?

5) Themes

- Take two or three themes from the Passage Path.
- Discuss how each theme continues to resurface throughout the book.
- How does the author use these themes to create meaning.

Possible themes to consider:

a. Importance of natural resources in the past v. today.
b. Natural v. synthetic and artificial compounds.
c. Political and economic conflicts arising out of need for natural resources.
d. Moral issues surrounding exploitation of natural and human resources.

6) Questions to consider

- There is no need to answer all of the questions. Simply use questions these questions as a framework for open discussions. Answer more of these questions if there is extra time.


a. Why did the Dutch surrender New Amsterdam to the British in 1667?
b. What makes chlorocarbons so dangerous?
c. Why are olives so important to Mediterranean trade? What makes them so useful?
d. What specific impact did some of these molecules have on history?


a. Why would Charles Goodyear experiment with a useless sticky blob like rubber?
b. Why did people in European villages convict women of witchcraft?
c. What implications for Western imperialism did the discovery of quinine have?
d. How might major historical events have changed were some of the 17 molecules not in use?
e. How did the development of synthetic dyes lead to modern-day chemical and pharmaceutical industries?


a. If you knew you could make a lot of money growing sugar in the Caribbean during the mid-17th century, but only by employing the use of slaves, would you?
b. Why are synthetic and artificial compounds so important? What moral and political implications are involved?
c. How would history be different if the Chinese or any other East Asian culture directly controlled all of the Spice Islands?
d. If this book were edited to include modern history, what chemical compounds would you include?
e. What chemical compound do you think made the greatest impact on history and why? (see also number 7 for ranking the 17 molecules)

7) If there is time, look at some outside sources or discuss creative writing pieces. Also, try ranking each of the 17 molecules in order of historical significance and discuss why you ordered them in the way you did.

8) Concluding Thoughts:

- What impressions did the book and discussion leave on you?
- Did your opinion of the book change during the course of the discussion?

Outside Sources:

Book Review

Creative Pieces:

Daniel Keliher
Throughout history, major and long reaching events have been driven by the characteristics and nature of the molecules that yield in things like gunpowder, spices and rubber. Many of these everyday substances, often dismissed as ordinary or inconsequential, have served as the catalyst for some of the most preeminent historical events of all time, such as rubber and imperialism, dyes and modern industries (including those that would drive the German war efforts in WWII), nitro compounds and explosives, and caffeine and the American Revolution.
The fundamental nature of molecules that create the properties that can be harnessed by civilization have given way to our greatest achievements in discovery, our greatest innovations (good and bad), and our most controversial social developments.
The spice and salt trades generated an inordinate amount international competition that necessitated new trade routes for transport, new conquests for supplies, and the drive to create monopolies to turn nations into empires. This drive resulted in the Age of Discovery, where the Europeans branched out and explored the world, completing the map and extending their influence across the world, which impacted the very nature of social development on this continent.
Scientists capitalized on the properties of a number of molecules that now drive and exist in our most fundamental tools in use today. We now use artificially created molecules in everything from rubber products to the all-important plastics that permeate every corner of our economic markets.
Finally, there have been discoveries that have created tremendous controversies that exist even today from birth control to narcotics. “The pill” was, in part, responsible for the Women's Liberation Movement in the 1960s and promoted enormous (and controversial) social changes. Another group of molecules that heavily influenced social development are those found in drugs. Being anything from caffeine to narcotics, these drugs have led to massive social changes and even caused wars. Imagine, if you will, a society where scientists had not discovered the effects of caffeine or had never thought of refining the poppy into opium, or even a world where the effects of such drugs didn't exist.
On that same note of developing new things from these molecules, a more abstract effect emerges. While all of this discovery went on, we were driven to make more discoveries. Improve everything we had, that included everything from artificially creating rubber to improving the yield of explosives. So, therefore, we have used the molecules we are capable of harnessing both as tools (of medicine, industry, economics and war) and as a motivator of sorts to drive our own scientific progress.
While it's nearly impossible to argue that some of the molecules were the only variables in these historical events, they were certainly major contributing factors. Imagine the outcome of WWI and WWII had German industries not been major exporters of dyes, thus making them able to produce poison gases and other war materials. Imagine how the events of the Great Patriotic War of 1812 (Napoleon's Russian Campaign) would have gone had tin not been used in the buttons of the French. What if tea (as a result of caffeine) had not been an important English trade commodity and thus unavailable as something to tax before the American Revolution. All these events had at least one facet rooted in nature, the molecules that exist around us that people make use of, and indeed we have made use of these things. The world would be a much different place without plastic, coffee, explosives, and antibiotics, and history would tell a much different story without them.
John O'Gorman:

The Spicy Allure
Christos e espiciarias!
For money and for faith!
The riches of America and India await!
Men risk their lives sailing all over the globe
for a pound of peppercorns, or a fistful of cloves.
Good money is paid for molecules of a hot, spicy tone
such as piperine, capsaicin, and zingerone.
Ship by ship Western culture unfurls
bringing wealth and trade all over the world.

King Cotton
For the want of money, a factory was built.
For the want of a factory, cloth was made.
For the want of cloth, farm hands were made to work.
For the want of workers, cotton was grown.
For the want of cotton, slaves were bought.
For the want of more money, another factory was built.
The rich are made richer
and the poor made poorer.

The Gift of a Goddess
An olive tree grows in Athens
Mediterranean countries grow rich in olive trade.
Greek democracy and Roman law flourish,
the high-water mark of classical civilization.
The dark ages come.
Olive oil can clean.
Triglycerides and fatty acids trap dirt and grease.
The gift of a goddess
brings health to mankind.

Pliable Phenol
The waste of a gas lamp
now saves patients lives
by sterilizing bandages
and surgeon’s knives.
The waste of a gas lamp
makes billiard balls click,
electric wires safer,
and many machines tick.
The applications of phenol are fantastic.
That small OH and benzene ring
that did give birth to modern-day plastics.

As vital as water, yet difficult to find
except by drying sea water, or boiling brine.
As prized as gold and as easy to trade,
but subject to monopolies, taxes, and blockades.
As explosive as gunpowder in fanning war fires;
it’s the foundation of all the great empires.
What was King is know in plentiful stock,
a fate not befitting Earth’s edible rock.

Series of Poems, by Claire Fouchereaux

Reconfigure Your Tactics In response to chapter five, Nitro Compounds 40 pachyderms and nitro compounds. Hannibal could have conquered. Rome, fallen.

But why move mountains when you could have the power to bomb?
40 pachyderms and a waste of dynamite. Hannibal would have conquered. Rome, in pieces.

October 10th A response to chapter thirteen, Morphine, Nicotine, and Caffeine Opium poppy: small, war-starting flower. If Columbus never smoked in China, would it be such a problem? Hurting the locals is something this explorer loves.
Take away his holiday.

The Ember of War As a response to Oleic Acid, chapter fourteen Invasion. Life goes up in flames. We’re conquered.
The olive trees will regrow, new shoots, new fruits, and renewed hope.
Rising from the ashes: productivity, soap, and peace.

Untethered In response to chapter fifteen, Salt A noose made of salt with no control of the chair beneath you. Attempts at freedom can be lethal, but to some, life is worth less than liberty. Steadfast and persistent, 240 miles is a step in the right direction. Peaceful and determined, punishment never swayed them. A monopoly is broken.

The Terror of Leopold II A response to chapter eight, Isoprene Collect sap or else, for how can you make us money when you are limbless?
Why is Spice Spicey
(Reaction to Napoleons Buttons) by Jacob French
“Professor Smith do you think that Napoleon’s armies buttons got destroyed while marching into Russia?”
“Well Jacob it’s possible and there are accounts that Napoleon’s army was holding their coats together and couldn’t hold onto their weapons. Are you bringing this up because you read Napoleon’s Buttons?”
“Yea I did but I felt that it exaggerated some of the importance of some of the molecules.”
“Well Jacob, it does a little, but wasn’t it a more interesting way to learn about chemistry?”
“Sure I like history a bit which was my favorite part, but when they talked about the shape of molecules and showed all sorts of diagrams I got really confused .”
“Well chemistry isn’t all about history, did you find it boring or confusing?”
“I got bored. I understand that things are spicy due to the shape our pain nerves respond and cause pain in our mouths. But, its much more interesting to read about trying to find a path to India.”
“Wasn’t it a joy to read about how silk was made?”
“Sure but, the creation of the silk road and how two men snuck silk worms out of China and brought them to Venice is so much more interesting then a worm that creates thousands of fine strings when making a cocoon.”
“ See, you learned some scientific stuff. What did you think of the creation of Chardonnet Silk?”
“It seems crazy for someone was creating silk that was so flammable that cigar ash flicked on a dress made out of the silk caught fire.”
“True but it was an important development towards the creation of a Nylon to make a cheaper for efficient silk.”
“Speaking of failures can you believe Magellan never made it around the world and died during his trip?”
“It wasn’t really a failure, it was just unfortunate, but wasn’t the book a great way to learn about chemistry?”
“Sure I loved the fact that they included a lot of history to keep it interesting.”

The World's Best Casual Gym Conversation:

Rachel Nixon

A: “Hello there”
B: “How are you”
A: “I'm well thanks, whats new with you?”
B: “Not much. I just read this great new book for my science book group: Napoleon's Buttons. It's about 17 molecules that changed the world”
A: “What a coincidence, I just read it as well”
B: “Oh, how did you like it?
A: “Well, I hated it with a burning passion.”
B: “Why is that?”
A: “Oh. My. Gosh. 360 pages of molecules? That's way too much science for me. You know I majored in fluffy bunny rabbits.”
B: “Oh yeah, then why did you read it?”
A: “I wanted to expand my comfort zone. What did you think?”
B: “I really liked it. As you know, I love history, but one rarely hears of science's huge role in the formation and development of our society. Plus, I'm a sucker for a good Lewis electron diagram.”
A: “I did enjoy the illustrations. I thought the consistent theme of molecular structure tied the book together nicely; not unlike the molecules themselves have tied together our history.”
B: “I thought the chapter on trade commodities was very interesting. It had the most thorough historical connection that was well-woven into the chapter.”
A: “Really, I thought the chapter on salicylic acid was way better. Although I will say that I thought the connections to historical events were a little weak.”
B: “How so?”
A: “You know, just parts where they would say things like “had it not been for the advent of vitamin C on ships, Columbus never would have discovered the New World...” I just think they could have elaborated on that a little more.
B: “Really, I like that they kept the focus on science and not history.”
A: “I just think that they could have done like “9 Molecules that Changed History” and explored the historical connections in greater depth; instead of just tagging a vague thought process at the end of each chapter. Like they did with glucose. The obscure connection to plebian society really didn't do it for me.
B: “That's a valid idea, but I really enjoyed learning about the many different molecules and I thought the book was very well organized. I thought the chapters flowed really well. And each followed somewhat of a common structure. They would introduce the molecule. Introduce the root of the historical connection. Explain the relevant aspect of the molecular structure, and conclude with a bridge to greater society. I can't think of a better format!”
A: “ I was also displeased with the lack of mention of beta-carotene. You know how integral that is to the survival of fluffy bunnies.”
B: “I suppose. Perhaps instead of beta-carotene, they could have fit in a few more medically-oriented ones. I was surprised that Jonas Salk was not mentioned.”
A: “Who's that”
B: “He discovered the polio vaccine. It is one of the most important medical discoveries in history.”
A: “I guess we should just be content with knowing that there are millions of molecules that shape our history everyday. We can't cram all of their stories into one book.”

B: “I suppose that's true...”
A: “Well, it was good to see you!”
B: “You as well!”
A: “Let's hit the treadmills.”