Friday, February 13, 2009

the role of alchemy in the history of science

An excerpt from Mary Ellen Bowden & Neil Gussman's review in Books & Culture of William Newman's Atoms and Alchemy-- what the reviewers summarize as "a superb book with far-reaching implications"...

...the popular image of the Scientific Revolution, representative of the mid-century scholarly consensus even if greatly simplified, has given way to messier narratives that reflect new understandings of the history of science. And nowhere is this change more apparent than in the revised estimate of alchemy among a growing number of contemporary scholars.

Alchemists, of course, figured in the familiar Enlightenment story as the last crazy magicians of the Middle Ages, charlatans scamming credulous creatures of the pre-modern world. In the 17th century, they were vanquished by the Scientific Revolution, their mummery discredited once and for all. But in Atoms and Alchemy: Chymistry and the Experimental Origins of the Scientific Revolution, William R. Newman tells a very different tale. Newman's intent with this book is to "give cause for reconsideration of the traditional 'grand narrative' of the Scientific Revolution. It is time to consider this topic anew rather than adding further lucubrations to the surveys and textbooks of our forebears." Aiming to rescue the beginnings of modern science from accumulated errors and misreadings, Newman clearly demonstrates that alchemists developed and refined laboratory practices that formed part of the foundation of what has become known as the Scientific Revolution. Far from springing up unbidden after a long and dreary epoch of rank superstition, the Scientific Revolution took root in the good soil of centuries of experimentation, much of it done by the alchemists.

This relatively slender book, in company with other recent scholarship that reconsiders what "everybody knows" about the history of science, promises to revolutionize the received understanding of the Scientific Revolution and the mechanical philosophy and experimentalism that characterized it. Newman is well aware that "alchemy" was an umbrella for a wide range of practices and pursuits, not all of which are pertinent to his argument. His dispute is with historians past and present who have denigrated alchemy tout court and who have failed to acknowledge its role in the development of modern science....


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home