Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy, Chemistry, and the Scientific Revolution

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Overview

"In this book, Bruce Moran looks past contemporary assumptions and prejudices to determine what alchemists were actually doing in the context of early modern science. Examining the ways alchemy and chemistry were studied and practiced between 1400 and 1700, he shows how these approaches influenced their respective practitioners' ideas about nature and shaped their inquiries into the workings of the natural world. His work sets up a dialogue between what historians have usually presented as separate spheres: here we see how alchemists and early chemists exchanged ideas and methods and in fact shared a territory between their two disciplines." Distilling Knowledge suggests that scientific revolution may wear a different appearance in different cultural contexts. The metaphor of the Scientific Revolution, Moran argues, can be expanded to make sense of alchemy and other so-called pseudo-sciences - by including a new framework in which "process can count as an object, in which making leads to learning, and in which the messiness of conflict leads to discernment." Seen on its own terms, alchemy can stand within the bounds of demonstrative science.
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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
A study of how alchemy contributed to the rise of science. Moran (History/Univ. Nevada at Reno) argues that alchemy, often depicted as bearing the same relation to chemistry that astrology does to astronomy, was a far more experimental and practical-oriented field of study than is commonly believed. Alchemy, he points out, developed over the course of several centuries, with its practitioners bringing a wide range of assumptions and methods to bear. While the modern image of alchemy focuses on the philosopher's stone and the transmutation of base metals to gold, there was always a strong element of medicine and pharmacy in the art. Paracelsus (1493?-1541), one of the central figures in the spread of alchemical doctrine, was in his time perceived primarily as a physician. He saw practical experience as a superior source of knowledge to academic theory, and he urged the physician/alchemist to discover the powers of natural substances to cure illnesses rather than relying on theory. And, as much as any modern chemist, he emphasized precision in weighing and measuring the ingredients in his "recipes." When his teachings began to enter into the universities, it was the beginning of the systematic study of chemistry. Moran also makes much of the interest of such scientific pioneers as Galileo, Newton and Boyle in alchemy, pointing out that the alchemists' recipes and techniques were frequently the foundation of later chemical theory. What he generally ignores is that the alchemists' own theoretical speculations, such as Paracelsus' contention that matter was a mixture of salt, sulfur and mercury, contributed little to the advances of Lavoisier and the other pioneers of scientific chemistry.There's a certain merit in Moran's suggestion that alchemy should be recognized as a valid early science. Unfortunately, though, his plodding rehearsal of it is unlikely to get many readers excited. Provocative thesis, flat rendition.
Times Higher Education Supplement

In his accessible and absorbing book, [Moran] explores the intellectual framework of alchemy and seeks to identify the extent to which alchemy was a science and how it contributed positively to the scientific revolution...I can recommend this elegant book without hesitation to anyone who wishes to understand the practices and motivations of the alchemists as they sank over the horizon in the 16th and 17th centuries and the true chemists rose to take their place.
— Peter Atkins

American Historical Review

I used to direct students looking for an introduction to the history of alchemy to Betty J. Teeter Dobbs's The Foundations of Newton's Alchemy: Or, The Hunting of the Greene Lyon...Now I will direct my students, and anyone else who asks me what alchemy is, to Bruce T. Moran's book. This compact volume provides a full and nuanced account of the history of alchemy from the medieval traditions of distillation to the Enlightenment definition of the discipline of chemistry...Precise, but never narrow, its scope includes artisanal knowledge and matter theory, and also encompasses medical and magical ideas and practices. This book is indispensable for anyone who studies or teaches the histories of early modern science and medicine.
— Lauren Kassell

BJHS

Bruce T. Moran's Distilling Knowledge is an excellent short survey of its topic, and as such it superbly fills a real gap in the existing literature.
— John Henry

Sixteenth Century Journal

In spite of the wealth of scholarship which informs the specialist, it still comes as a surprise to those not in the field of history that the pre-Enlightenment world was not enslaved by “irrational superstition” and that there is a reasonable and organic relationship between what is today regarded as “science” and many things which we have, however incorrectly, discarded as “pseudo-science.” Public Broadcasting specials no less than their cable counterparts leave most of the whiggish assumptions of the audience intact when they claim to present the “real story” behind Galileo, Newton, or the other “big names” of the Scientific Revolution. Those wishing to bridge the gap which separates the historian of science from popular assumptions about the history of science have faced the problem that there are few tools with which to accomplish this task. Books which are both accessible to a general audience and accurate are hard to find. Bruce Moran has written one, and it is a welcome addition to the classroom and the shelf. Distilling Knowledge is written by an established scholar in a plain and engaging style that keeps the reader’s attention. This book has an obvious application in survey courses in the history of science, but it is also an excellent book to recommend to the casual reader or the colleague across campus in the hard sciences who would like to know more about the history of science.
— Steven Matthews

Lawrence M. Principe
Distilling Knowledge will prove to be the most important and valuable teaching or general-reader text on this subject available. I am often asked by students, colleagues, and interested members of the public to recommend such a 'general reader' text which could introduce them satisfactorily to alchemy and early chemistry. But there is no text that I could possibly recommend - not, that is, until this one. Thanks to Bruce Moran for writing this book and making my life easier.
Pamela H. Smith
This is a book that fills a real gap in introductory literature on the Scientific Revolution and in the history of science. Bruce Moran provides a useful introduction to and overview of the history of chemistry in the early modern period. There is a good mix of attention to the practices of alchemy and chemistry as well as to the development of chemical theory. There is no other book like it.
Times Higher Education Supplement - Peter Atkins
In his accessible and absorbing book, [Moran] explores the intellectual framework of alchemy and seeks to identify the extent to which alchemy was a science and how it contributed positively to the scientific revolution...I can recommend this elegant book without hesitation to anyone who wishes to understand the practices and motivations of the alchemists as they sank over the horizon in the 16th and 17th centuries and the true chemists rose to take their place.
American Historical Review - Lauren Kassell
I used to direct students looking for an introduction to the history of alchemy to Betty J. Teeter Dobbs's The Foundations of Newton's Alchemy: Or, The Hunting of the Greene Lyon...Now I will direct my students, and anyone else who asks me what alchemy is, to Bruce T. Moran's book. This compact volume provides a full and nuanced account of the history of alchemy from the medieval traditions of distillation to the Enlightenment definition of the discipline of chemistry...Precise, but never narrow, its scope includes artisanal knowledge and matter theory, and also encompasses medical and magical ideas and practices. This book is indispensable for anyone who studies or teaches the histories of early modern science and medicine.
BJHS - John Henry
Bruce T. Moran's Distilling Knowledge is an excellent short survey of its topic, and as such it superbly fills a real gap in the existing literature.
Sixteenth Century Journal - Steven Matthews
In spite of the wealth of scholarship which informs the specialist, it still comes as a surprise to those not in the field of history that the pre-Enlightenment world was not enslaved by “irrational superstition” and that there is a reasonable and organic relationship between what is today regarded as “science” and many things which we have, however incorrectly, discarded as “pseudo-science.” Public Broadcasting specials no less than their cable counterparts leave most of the whiggish assumptions of the audience intact when they claim to present the “real story” behind Galileo, Newton, or the other “big names” of the Scientific Revolution. Those wishing to bridge the gap which separates the historian of science from popular assumptions about the history of science have faced the problem that there are few tools with which to accomplish this task. Books which are both accessible to a general audience and accurate are hard to find. Bruce Moran has written one, and it is a welcome addition to the classroom and the shelf. Distilling Knowledge is written by an established scholar in a plain and engaging style that keeps the reader’s attention. This book has an obvious application in survey courses in the history of science, but it is also an excellent book to recommend to the casual reader or the colleague across campus in the hard sciences who would like to know more about the history of science.
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Bruce T. Moran is Professor of History, University of Nevada at Reno.
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Table of Contents

1 Doing alchemy 8
2 "That pleasing novelty" : alchemy in artisan and daily life 37
3 Paracelsus and the "Paracelsians" : natural relationships and separation as creation 67
4 Sites of learning and the language of chemistry 99
5 Alchemy, chemistry, and the technology of knowing 132
6 The reality of relationship 157
Conclusion : varieties of experience in reading the book of nature 182
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