History’s unpredictable paths

2017-09-05

in Books and literature, Geek stuff, History, Science

Columbus could not have foreseen the results of his search for piperine, Magellan was unaware of the long-term effects of his quest for isoeugenol, and Schönbein would surely have been astonished that the nitrocellulose he made from his wife’s apron was the start of great industries as diverse as explosives and textiles. Perkin could not have anticipated that his small experiment would eventually lead not only to a huge synthetic dye trade but also to the development of antibiotics and pharmaceuticals. Marker, Nobel, Chardonnet, Carothers, Lister, Baekeland, Goodyear, Hofmann, Leblanc, the Solvay brothers, Harrison, Midgley, and all the others whose stories we have told had little idea of the historical importance of their discoveries. So we are perhaps in good company if we hesitate to try to predict whether today there already exists an unsuspected molecule that will eventually have such a profound and unanticipated effect on life as we know it that our descendants will say, “This changed the world.”

Le Couteur, Penny and Jay Burreson. Napoleon’s Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed History. Penguin, 2004.

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