Edward Tufte and Napoleon’s Buttons

Edward Tufte describes this graphic drawn by Charles Joseph Minard as the “best statistical graphic ever drawn”. Beginning at the Polish-Russian border, the graphic depicts the size of Napoleon’s as the width of a line that shrinks from an initial size of 600,000 in June of 1812 to fewer than 10,000 by early December. Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow has always been blamed on the numbing cold of the Russian winter. I always thought that was enough of an explanation.

This book is changing my mind about that. The title, “Napoleon’s Buttons” brings up the possibly apocryphal explanation that the tin buttons used by the Grande Armée to fasten their uniforms underwent a phase transition in the cold. Below around 13.2 °C shiny metallic (β-tin) changes into white, crumbly α-tin. &#946-tin is silvery-white shiny and has a tetragonal structure, while α-tin has a cubic structure. According to WebElements ,

The conversion was first noted as growths on organ pipes in European cathedrals, where it was thought to be the devils work. This conversion was also speculated to be caused microorganisms and was called “tin plague” or “tin disease”.

Did the tin phase transition cause a massive uniform failure that led to the decimation of Napoleon’s army? Possibly, all though the phase transition is not known to be incredibly speedy (α-tin may have a lower free energy than β-tin, but the free energy barrier between the two phases is large). It does make an interesting hypothesis.

“Napoleon’s Buttons” is divided into 17 chapters, each on a different class of molecule that altered human history. I’m only one chapter in so far, but it looks great!

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