Science plays a big part in historical events

Napoleon's buttons, blue jeans and willow trees discussed at ElderCollege presentation.

  • Apr. 2, 2012 3:00 p.m.

By Marlene Robertson

Button: a) a small knob or disk secured to an article (clothing) and used as a fastener by passing it through a buttonhole or loop: b) a usually circular metal or plastic badge bearing a stamped design or printed slogan (campaign button).

I have to confess that I was never a brilliant science student, and in fact took a commercial course, where I learned to type, take shorthand, file and so on.

Way back then, when commercial courses were a popular high school track, girls who loved science or math were rare creatures in my world.

Over the decades between then and now, I’ve taken courses that challenge, excite and sometimes baffle me, but never science. It just wasn’t on my radar.

I’m happy to tell you that is about to change.

On April 21 from 10 a.m. to noon, I’m attending a presentation entitled Napoleon’s Buttons:  Seventeen Molecules that Changed History, by Penny Le Couteur who holds a PhD in chemistry.

So what do Napoleon’s buttons have to do with anything, other than keeping his jacket closed or his pants up? Darned if I know – which is precisely why I’m heading to the Vancouver Island University Parksville/Qualicum campus later this month.

Le Couteur said nutmeg, blue jeans and willow trees may seem to have very little to do with historical events, yet chemical compounds found in each of these have had a profound effect on social, economic and cultural aspects of civilization.

She discusses these and other molecules that appear in the book, and how and why the compounds and their stories were chosen.

Le Couteur received her PhD from the University of California at Santa Barbara and was a founding faculty member in the chemistry department at Capilano University where she was dean of arts and sciences when she retired.

She served as an advisor for curriculum development and pedagogy in chemistry with several universities in Eastern Indonesia, has written distance education chemistry courses for B.C.’s Open University, is a co-author of a Canadian Grade 12 chemistry textbook and was visiting tutor at Quest University Canada in Squamish.

Her book was selected as one of the three finalists for the book category award of The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, and has been published in several languages.

Napoleon’s Buttons was described by Entertainment Weekly as “a splendid example of better reading through chemistry” and by the American Scientist as “great fun to read.”

Imagine anyone saying that about a chemistry book.

This is one bright lady with an interesting story to tell, and you don’t want to miss it.

There is a $5 general admission charge at the door and seating is limited, so come early. Please call 1-866-734-6252 or e-mail for more information.

Mmmm – I wonder if Napoleon wore a campaign button?

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