Reading progress update: I've read 130 out of 377 pages.

Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History - Jay Burreson, Penny Le Couteur

I haven't written any updates for Napoleon's Buttons recently. This is not because I stopped reading or because I am no longer enjoying the book. I am! It's just been really busy over here at BT HQ and I haven't had the head-space to read sciency non-fiction. 


Back to the book:

We are only beginning to understand the unique properties of some naturally occurring members of the phenol family. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana, is a phenol found in Cannabis sativa, the Indian hemp plant. Marijuana plants have been grown for centuries for the strong fibers found in the stem, which make excellent rope and a coarse cloth, and for the mildly intoxicating, sedative, and hallucinogenic properties of the THC molecule found—in some cannabis varieties—in all parts of the plant but most often concentrated in the female flower buds. 

I am amused at how many reference to drugs - as in recreational drugs - there are in this book! 


I am also beginning to wish that the book had a much more in-depth referencing system. This is no longer just because I wish to read more around certain topics (not the drug references, btw. Just clarifying.) but because the author includes statements and assertions that need to be backed up with sources, or else read like sensationalist claims that may as well appear in a two-paragraph column of the Daily Mail. 


This is one example:

Naturally occurring phenols often have two or more OH groups attached to the benzene ring. Gossypol is a toxic compound, classified as a polyphenol because it has six OH groups on four different benzene rings. The gossypol molecule.

Extracted from seeds of the cotton plant, gossypol has been shown to be effective in suppressing sperm production in men, making it a possible candidate for a male chemical birth control method. The social implications of such a contraceptive could be significant.


The molecule with the complicated name of epigallocatechin-3-gallate, found in green tea, has even more phenolic OH groups. It has recently been credited with providing protection against various types of cancer. Other studies have shown that polyphenolic compounds in red wine inhibit the production of a substance that is a factor in hardening of the arteries, possibly explaining why in countries where a lot of red wine is consumed there is a lower incidence of heart disease, despite a diet rich in butter, cheese, and other foods high in animal fat.