Napoleon’s Buttons: How Science and Superstition Shape History and Society

Posted by Andrew on Dec 12, 2017 in book reviews

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I recently read an awesome book called Napoleon’s Buttons. It’s all about weird superstitious behaviours that have later been proven correct by science. Most of the time, they don’t make sense, but humans are naturally superstitious. Believing that we have more control than we do makes us feel more comfortable. So does the idea that the universe has a profound purpose.

However, even though a lot of superstitions are bizarre, they sometimes achieve good results. The reasons seem counterintuitive, but science often explains anomalies that make no sense at first. It can illuminate why some superstitions begin, and how solutions to them have accidentally worked out.

The book is called Napoeon’s Buttons due to a particular story. During the Napoleonic Wars, people thought that they were seeing ghosts. This was around a lot of the same areas where Napoleon’s soldiers had invaded. Across the countryside in places like France, Poland, and Russia, people saw what looked like men whose clothes glowed when it rained.

One crucial fact to remember is that the buttons on the uniforms of Napoleon’s soldiers were made of tin. Scientists later discovered that this metal disintegrates when it gets wet. So when it rained, the men who were roaming around in between battles got their buttons damaged. Their coats and shirts were forced open when the rain made their buttons disintegrate. This is how people noticed that tin dissolves into powder when it gets wet.

So in the rain, soldiers’ coats would billow around in the wind. The presumably cloudy skies would make it difficult to see them clearly, and their buttons would disintegrate into powder. You can imagine how the tin might be reflected by light from the rain in unusual ways. Maybe the metal would even appear to glow. Since humans tend to think superstitiously, you can probably guess how easy it is to have hallucinations of ghosts if you see all of these factors. Your superstitious brain would see, maybe from a distance, a person with glowing clothes that are billowing in the wind. Many people today would believe that this person is a ghost in that situation. It’s possible that people in general were even more superstitious back then.

Another example in the book is about nutmeg and plague rats. Almost everyone has probably heard of the infamous Black Plague, or Black Death. Since we didn’t have modern science yet at this point, people didn’t know that a particular type of fly caused the plague. We thought that the culprits were demonic rats because coincidentally, the flies carrying the disease often bit them.

The rats spread the plague, but people believed that Satan or demons had sent them to kill us. So we started carrying vials of supposedly magic nutmeg around our necks to ward off the demonic spirits. This actually worked a lot of the time because we accidentally used science to help solve a problem. What scientists didn’t learn until recently is that the type of fly that transmits the plague doesn’t like the smell of nutmeg. People thought that we were using this spice’s divine powers to ward off evil spirits. But in reality, the smell of nutmeg scared away the flies that transmit the Black Death to rats. Some of the rats stopped getting it in the first place. This is because the ones who were close to humans with nutmeg didn’t get bitten by the flies.

Most people have probably already heard about this next interesting story in Napoleon’s Buttons. It’s about the accidental discovery of vitamin C’s benefits. A persistent problem at the time was that people frequently got scurvy and died from it when they went on long sea voyages. If I remember correctly, they usually didn’t bring fruit because it would spoil too quickly. They ate salted meat, beer and other alcohol, and probably other food that I’m forgetting about.

Eventually, we noticed that if we brought limes and lemons with us on ships, people who ate them didn’t get scurvy. So humans figured out that limes and lemons prevent scurvy. Later on, scientists discovered that vitamin C is what actually prevents the disease. Scurvy is caused by a deficiency of it, and lemons and limes have high amounts of this vitamin.

A story about witches in the book shows us that history is much more ambiguous and less one sided than we are told. Other than trying to cast spells and resurrect demons, they also were shamans who cured minor health problems using plants. Witches weren’t just crazy chicks who were obsessed with doing evil shit. They also helped people.

It’s important to remember that the Christians who mostly unfairly persecuted witches also used plant medicines. It was okay in their minds for them to help people in the same way because they were “good,” and witches were “evil”. There wasn’t modern medicine for Christians or anyone else to use in the “dark ages.” It seems like religion was the authority on knowledge, and how good and evil were defined.

Similarly to what Napoleon’s Buttons says about witches, it tells us about a plant medicine being used to treat malaria. Apparently, there’s a molecule called quinine that you can find in a particular type of tree bark. This was used to cure malaria for a long time before modern medicine. There are better treatments now because quinine supposedly has a lot of negative side effects. But it was possible to cure this terrible disease without our fancy advanced science. It seems like scientists mostly developed the tools to cure malaria for far more people with way less risks.

The main takeaway that I got from Napoleon’s Buttons is this: Superstition is not only bad. Sometimes bizarre behaviour can be explained, and it can even turn out to be useful. We can pragmatically figure things out without understanding any of the underlying science. But a lack of scientific knowledge can also help inspire us to mistreat others and make mistakes. Pragmatism is important, but perhaps seemingly nonsensical thought has a role in society. One of the many reasons that science is so amazing is that it helps explain events, behaviours, and processes. It also gives us far more power to improve the world than we’ve ever had before. I think that we need both scientific and superstitious thinking for society to flourish. You don’t need to have one without the other. They don’t have to be in an imagined cosmic struggle for the fate of humanity. Maybe it’s better for science and religion to try to at least tolerate each other.

Originally published at on December 12, 2017.