Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History by Penny LeCouteur, Jay Burreson is a fascinating book. Isoeugenol is a single molecule that fits with certain human receptors. This molecule from the nutmeg gave rise to the Age of Discovery, discovery of the new world, the East India Trading Company and the development of stocks. Glucose drove the slave trade, and built capital that gave rise to the industrial revolution. The difference between molecules is often a small difference in the bonds or the location of the hydrogen bond to carbon atom and can have huge practical differences. The title derives from the property of tin to dissolve in the cold resulting in Napoleon's army falling to pieces when their tin buttons dissolved in the Russian winter. They could not fight when they needed both hands to hold their clothes on in the cold. The lines of that conflict remain today between East and West.

Of particular note to speculators was the discussion about the diagramming notation of chemical compounds. The diagrams contain many layers of information that are informative and aid analysis and understanding about the structure of the molecules. Chair asked why there is no table of elements for the market. The key to this would be a notation system for market patterns similar to a chemical notation which not only conveys information about the relationships of prices to each other as in your typical chart, but also the nature of the underlying structures and their composition. My soon to be Phd. daughter advises me that there are stereo notations that go beyond the 3 or 4 dimensions in standard notation. The fact that right hand, or left hand iterations of molecule react differently is a concept useful to speculators following this idea. For example, up markets differ markedly from down markets displaying a 'handedness" Standard chart notation like "W" or "M" lack this information and thus lack the tools for proper understanding and analysis. The visualization of information as Tufte demonstrated has benefits to analysis beyond charts, and formulas. Seeing the location of turns, tops, bottoms and the way those were created helps in quantification and testing. The nature of the bonds (I don't mean debt instruments, but refer to intermarket and intramarket relationships) in market relationships make a big difference in future price action. A visual notation of this could reveal important but previously hidden relationships. Many Nobel prizes in chemistry were awarded for discovery of some of these important relationships.

Stefan Jovanovich elaborates:

Napoleon's army did not freeze to death; they starved. So did many of the Russians and Prussians who fought against them. The French buttons may have failed; but no one with half a brain was using clothing as a shield against the cold in that campaign. They wrapped themselves– and their horses - in blankets (the officers used furs). As for "the lines of that conflict remain(ing) today between East and West", James has a point, but it is not the "lesson" he draws from this campaign. The old lines are being erased: the Germans seem on the verge of reaching a fundamental alliance with the Russians similar to the one that existed between Prussia and Russia in 1812. Napoleon's great error was to be foolish enough to insult the Austrians so badly that they decided - for once - to ignore their standing hostility towards the Prussians. The line of conflict between East and West that Europe lived with for the past hundred years came not from the divisions present in Napoleon's invasion of Russia but from their abandonment: Bismarck's stupid successors overthrew his sensible Prussian foreign policy of alliance with Russia (the Balkans are not worth the life of one grenadier) and chose to take the Austro-Hungarian and Turkish side of the argument. As for all other inferences about how molecules changed history, I offer no opinion.

Jim Sogi adds:

Another interesting factoid is that the Dutch and English fought bitterly over the spice island Banda where nutmeg was grown. It was valuable at the time. To settle the dispute, the Dutch signed over a small useless island known as New Amsterdam. The English renamed it New York. The Native American tribes called it Manhattan, "the place where we all got drunk". Still appropriate after many years. The spice turned out not to prevent the plague, and the monopoly was later broken when starts were smuggled out to be grown elsewhere. Banda is relatively abandoned except for rare tourists.

Marion Dreyfus comments:


I have been to Banda Island, where the king ("King," he said he was) offered me his throne if i married him–he gave me nutmeg! I brought it back to the States and of course it was confiscated as suspect importation, despite my protests that "the king of Banda gave me this as a earnest of his love!" and gave me other things, too. His wife had died some time earlier, I add. There are many lovely parrots there, but the dancing girls and the twittering photogenic fowl do not make up for lack of A/C, I am afraid. His home was spectacular, marble floors and walls, thatch covering more modern materials under the thatch; long, graceful rooms, not many rugs, but solid furnishings with luxe sewn into their DNA, and power-connotative. But I was not partial to the heat nor his particular nonmetrosexual demeanor. He gave me other gifts I cherish that were not taken from me by the immigration men. But small-island life as a way of life is not alluring to the overeducated big City female, I think it safe to say.

More's the pity!

Would my life have been far more glam and amazing? I would surely have saved a great deal of minutes and hours from huge gusts of email I would not have gotten, but one is forced to wonder what he could have given me that I don't have more of, and better of, right here in costly midtown Manhattan, with or without air conditioning. Gratitude for one's life, especially when arrayed against a might-have-been.






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1 Comment so far

  1. Gregory Rehmke on September 14, 2010 2:43 am

    On nutmeg in history, I recommend the book: “Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: Or, The True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed The Course Of History.”

    On the “east/west” divide I recommend Richard Pipe’s “Property and Freedom,” especially the chapter on Patrimonial Russia, which is a discussion of institutional history and why Russia did not develop property rights institutions. (U.S./Russia is the homeschool debate topic and we have page of resources here: ).


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