Napoleon’s Buttons | by Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson

Napoleon’s Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History by Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson
(Putnam, 2003, 375 pages)

A chemistry professor and a chemist wrote this great book. They selected 17 molecules and told fascinating stories about them. Each chapter is dedicated to a particular molecule, its discovery, how it was used, and its impact on humans, good and bad. If you like to cook, you’ll enjoy the first three chapters. They are all food related: Peppers, Nutmeg, Cloves, Ascorbic Acid and Glucose. After you learn about how sugar plantations were established to satisfy Europe’s huge sweet tooth, you can jump to Chapter Seven: Silk and Nylon. In this chapter, you’ll learn how Nylon became the synthetic replacement for silk and how Nylon stimulated the fashion industry.

The book also discussed the negative impact some molecules had on humans such as the use of poison gas in war and the environmental consequences of the use of DDT. I found the book enjoyable and engaging. It would make excellent supplemental reading for high school and college chemistry courses, especially organic chemistry. You can totally ignore the chemical formulas and molecular structures if chemistry is not your cup of tea. Highly recommend for history and science readers.

Concussion | by Jeanne Marie Laskas

Concussion by Jeanne Marie Laskas
(Random House, 2015, 259 pages)

I really wanted to read this book before I see the movie. I was glad to find it on one of our library displays. It tells of the discovery of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) in NFL players by Dr. Bennet Omalu. Dr. Omalu left Nigeria for the United States to become a pathologist. While working at the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office in Pittsburgh in 2002, Dr. Omalu performed the autopsy of famous football player, Mike Webster. After careful study of Webster’s brain, Dr. Omalu believed Webster suffered from dementia caused by repeated blows to the head similar to those of boxers. More examinations were done. Large accumulations of T-protein clumps were found in Webster’s brain, which affected Webster’s mood, emotions, and executive functions. Dr. Omalu concluded that Webster’s CTE was caused by concussions he suffered while playing football.

Dr. Omalu and his colleagues published the first paper on CTE in 2005. Over the next ten years, Dr. Omalu examined the brains of other deceased NFL players and found the same evidence. What’s surprising is that repeated mild concussions can cause CTE as well. Throughout the course of the investigation the NFL fought hard to suppress the truth. Many retired NFL players continue to struggle with cognitive and intellectual impairment, mood disorders, depression, drug abuse, and suicide attempts. It’s heartbreaking to read stories of how these concussions destroyed football players’ lives and their families. About half of the book is devoted to Dr. Omalu’s personal life and how he achieved the American dream. I found that some of transitions between Dr. Omalu’s life and the concussion research were not as smooth as they could have been. Still, it’s a fantastic and captivating read. If you only have a moment, PBS has created a Timeline of the NFL’s Concussion Crisis. I highly recommend this book to people who are interested in medicine and contact sports and to the parents who will decide what sports their kids will play.

Here’s what happens when players’ helmets make head-to-head contact as described by Dr. Omalu on page 99:

Football players wear helmets, good protection for the skull. So it would be reasonable to think that the brain would be spared damaging impact… Anybody who knew anything about the anatomy of the head knew better. It was a simple matter of physics. The brain floats, is suspended in a kind of thick jelly inside the skull. If you hit the head hard enough, that brain is going to move, no matter what kind of protection you put around the skull. A helmet protects the skull. A helmet can’t keep the brain from sloshing around in that skull. If you hit your head hard enough, the brain goes bashing against the walls of the skull.

Big Science | by Michael Hiltzik

Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention That Launched the Military-Industrial Complex by Michael Hiltzik
(Simon & Schuster, 2015, 512 pages)

When I saw this new book sitting on the display shelf, I had to check it out. I’d read a couple of books on the Manhattan Project and atomic bombs, and Ernest Lawrence’s name kept popping up. I only knew that he was a key scientist involved in the Manhattan Project and he won a Nobel Prize for inventing the cyclotron.

This book covers Lawrence’s professional career, not so much about his personal life. I enjoyed learning more about his contributions to nuclear physics, his leadership in establishing “Big Science,” and the birth of the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory. It’s a treat to read about other extraordinary scientists whom Lawrence worked with on the Manhattan Project. Among them was Arthur Compton, a Nobel laureate, who served as Chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis for eight years.

Chapter 13 covers the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge Tennessee which I know some about. It’s fun to read about it from the views of Lawrence and his 100+ PhD physicists from Berkeley. Here’s a fun story: In a week long competition, the high school diploma workers outdid the PhD physicists in adjusting the knobs and optimizing production. The workers were trained to follow the instructions; whereas the scientists questioned and investigated the minor fluctuation of their meters (271).

Lawrence’s invention of the cyclotron not only revolutionized nuclear physics, it also paved the way for medical research and diagnostics. The cyclotron is a machine that accelerates particles. For example it can produce F 18, a radioisotope, which is used in PET scans. The first commercial medical cyclotron was installed in 1941 at Washington University in St. Louis.

I found this book to be well researched, fast-paced and engaging. If you are interested in World War II or nuclear physics, give this book a try.