Modern Alchemy: Occultism and the Emergence of Atomic Theory

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Overview

Alchemists are generally held to be the quirky forefathers of science, blending occultism with metaphysical pursuits. Although many were intelligent and well-intentioned thinkers, the oft-cited goals of alchemy paint these antiquated experiments as wizardry, not scientific investigation. Whether seeking to produce a miraculous panacea or struggling to transmute lead into gold, the alchemists radical goals held little relevance to consequent scientific pursuits. Thus, the temptation is to view the transition from alchemy to modern science as one that discarded fantastic ideas about philosophers stones and magic potions in exchange for modest yet steady results. It has been less noted, however, that the birth of atomic science actually coincided with an efflorescence of occultism and esoteric religion that attached deep significance to questions about the nature of matter and energy.

Mark Morrisson challenges the widespread dismissal of alchemy as a largely insignificant historical footnote to science by prying into the revival of alchemy and its influence on the emerging subatomic sciences of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.Morrisson demonstrates its surprising influence on the emerging subatomic sciences of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Specifically, Morrisson examines the resurfacing of occult circles during this time period and how their interest in alchemical tropes had a substantial and traceable impact upon the science of the day. Modern Alchemy chronicles several encounters between occult conceptions of alchemy and the new science, describing how academic chemists, inspired by the alchemy revival, attempted to transmute the elements; to make gold.
Examining scientists publications, correspondence, talks, and laboratory notebooks as well as the writings of occultists, alchemical tomes, and science-fiction stories, he argues that during the birth of modern nuclear physics, the trajectories of science and occultism—-so often considered antithetical—-briefly merged.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"...fascinating and well-written. Strongly recommended to students of the history of modern science."—Choice

"Modern Alchemy explores the revival of alchemy in the early twentieth century, revealing a remarkable interaction between occultists, Theosophists and cutting-edge science on radioactivity. Mark Morrisson shows how pioneering work on intellectual borders led to transmutations, a contest between radio-chemistry and nuclear physics, and even changed attitudes to world finance and the gold standard. A fine work of cultural history, Modern Alchemy will be valuable to those interested in Western esotericism, the history of ideas, alchemy and science, literature and discourse." — Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, author of The Occult Roots of Nazism and Black Sun

"Morrisson's Modern Alchemy is an ambitious and original account of the dynamic interactions between chemistry and the occult during the tumultuous transformations of science at the dawn of the twentieth century. Drawing from scientific publications, literature, occult manifestoes, and a multitude of other sources, the story told here cannot fail to provoke and at times astonish. Morrisson amply demonstrates that truth is at times much stranger than fiction could hope to be." — Michael D. Gordin, Princeton University, author of A Well-Ordered Thing: Dmitrii Mendeleev and the Shadow of the Periodic Table

"Modern Alchemy is a wonderful achievement. This genuinely exciting book draws connections and parallels that would have escaped less imaginative scholars. Mark Morrisson succeeds magnificently in integrating the seemingly irreconcilable worlds of sober science and the occult." — Philip Jenkins, author of Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195306965
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 4/19/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 9.40 (w) x 6.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark Morrison is Associate Professor of English, Pennsylvania State University

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Table of Contents

Introduction
1. From the Golden Dawn to the Alchemical Society
2. Occult Chemistry, Instrumentation, and the Theosophical Science of Direct Perception
3. Chemistry in the Borderland
4. Atomic Alchemy and the Gold Standard
Epilogue
Appendix A: Boundary-Work, Border Crossings, and Trading Zones
Appendix B: Occult Interest Books by Alchemical Society Members
Appendix C: A Partial List of Alchemical Society Members
Notes
Works Cited
Index

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