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Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy, Chemistry, and the Scientific Revolution (New Histories of Science, Technology, and Medicine) Paperback – October 1, 2006

ISBN-13: 978-0674022492 ISBN-10: 0674022491

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Product Details

  • Series: New Histories of Science, Technology, and Medicine (Book 10)
  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (October 1, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674022491
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674022492
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 8.2 x 8.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #577,116 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The traditional grand narrative of the scientific revolution styles it as a decisive rejection of magic and mysticism in favor of rationality and empiricism. This engaging study of early modern science insists there was no such sharp break. Historian Moran traces the gradual evolution of alchemy to chemistry through a wide array of texts from the 15th through 18th centuries, including classical alchemical treatises, handbooks of practical alchemy, early chemistry textbooks and the writings of Newton and Boyle, both of whom considered alchemy a perfectly legitimate scientific discipline. He finds in alchemical thought intriguing precursors of modern ideas about the particulate nature of matter, the biochemical paradigm of life and disease, and Newtonian gravity. Moreover, he considers alchemy, which boasted a vast amount of lore on everything from metallurgy to medicine and was practiced not just by adepts but by doctors, artisans and housewives, to have been an important catalyst in the development of the scientific mindset; while alchemical theories may have been wrong, alchemical practice schooled society at large in everyday habits of observation and experimentation. Conveying a wealth of historical detail in an accessible, jargon-free style, Moran provides a fascinating corrective to simplistic notions of the origins of modern science. Photos.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

Reacting to the perception that the break, early on in the scientific revolution, between alchemy and chemistry was clean and abrupt, Moran literately and engagingly recaps what was actually a slow process. Far from being the superstitious amalgam it is now considered, alchemy was genuine science before and during the scientific revolution. The distinctive alchemical procedure--distillation--became the fundamental method of analytical chemistry, and the alchemical goal of transmuting "base metals" into gold and silver led to the understanding of compounds and elements. What alchemy very gradually but finally lost in giving way to chemistry was its spiritual or religious aspect, the linkages it discerned between purely physical and psychological properties. Drawing saliently from the most influential alchemical and scientific texts of the medieval to modern epoch (especially the turbulent and eventful seventeenth century), Moran fashions a model short history of science volume. Ray Olson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By xlamp on May 6, 2007
Format: Paperback
After reading several popular books on alchemy, it was a relief to find this scholarly, yet easy-to-read, history. Moran sets alchemy in context through time and shows how it fits into the scientific revolution. All the major alchemical heavies are there--including some fascinating material on Paracelsus. Also discusses such things as the evolution of the alchemy/chemistry teaching laboratory. Really a satisfying and fascinating read.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Albert Hand on October 10, 2007
Format: Paperback
Bruce Moran is a heavy in the world of academic alchemical studies, and this book is exactly what the history of science needs--after having neglected the serious study of alchemy for too long for the wrong reasons. Of all his books, this is the best place to start for somebody with a general interest in the subject, or those who wish to better understand the true place of alchemy in the development of modern scientific method, as well as the history of chemistry. This book contains a powerful argument for the relevance of alchemy in the development of the modern conception of what scientific knowledge should be understood as consisting of, and should dispel for anyone with "eyes to see" the negative rumours about alchemy being foolish superstition. Alchemy was early modern matter theory, deeply concerned with many of the issues modern scientists can't fail to neglect. Now historians of science cannot neglect them either.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By SCM on January 16, 2014
Format: Paperback
Disclaimer: the author was one of my college professors, and I took three of his classes (history of science, history of early modern Europe--that one with my husband, one of the two university classes we took together--and an independent study). He's a great lecturer with a dry sense of humor, but you will never take more difficult exams (for me, outside of the hard sciences) in undergrad.

Disclaimer to the disclaimer: I got As. There isn't another place on the internet I can brag about this, since it happened long ago, so...sorry. I got As!

This is a very rich, very interesting, and dense account of how we got from mystical alchemy to the beginning of "real" chemistry of the Scientific Revolution. Oddly, this is an area that is underrepresented in historical scholarship (I don't get it, because I think it's one of the most interesting aspects of intellectual/scientific history).

The transition from "pure" alchemy to "pure" chemistry is a lot like watching a child grow: there's vertical progress, but not without periodic regressions and quite a few tantrums. Then, suddenly, you're shipping your kid off to college and wondering "where did the girl who liked My Little Pony go?"

The book itself is a survey, and I'm guessing it was written with graduate students in mind. I'll punt to the professor:

"To include alchemy and chemistry as parts of the Scientific Revolution, it is not necessary to wait until Lavoisier made use of quantitative (gravimetric) techniques in the laboratory, acknowledged the conservation of weight...or explained combustion and calcination by means of oxygen....
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Thom F. Cavalli PhD on November 29, 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Brilliant! I have read dozens of books on alchemy's history but Distilling Knowledge is by far the best. Moran has given the world a true gift. His book goes beyond delivering just history, he gives us the inside story of how the Scientific Revolution unfolded with alchemy being a key ingredient to this profound transition. This is a very human story that reveals how differently early scientists conceived and imagined their world, one that was far more visionary, colorful and soulful than our own. His writing is clear and his research, comprehensive. We learn about different types of alchemy, the interchangeability of alchemy and chemistry (at times), the contest between court and university alchemists, the arguments for and against alchemy, the contradictions of some who were for and against alchemy and perhaps most importantly, why and how alchemy was sacrificed so that chemistry could find its place in University medical school curricula. This is a must read for anyone interested in a full understanding of alchemy, its place in the history of science, its profound contribution and the role it continues to play in contemporary science. The recipe Solve et Coagula is no less important today than it was in the Middle Ages. Distilling Knowledge is a masterpiece! (Don't bother highlighting lines - the entire book bears special attention!) [...]
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