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William R. Newman and Anthony Grafton (eds.): Secrets of Nature: Astrology and Alchemy in Early Modern Europe.

William R. Newman and Anthony Grafton (eds.): Secrets of Nature: Astrology and Alchemy in Early Modern Europe Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press 2001, 443 pp, HC ISBN 0-262-14075-6

To the modern mind, uttering the word "alchemy" conjures images of a remote past filled with charlatans claiming to turn base metals into gold through their craft. To those not accustomed to examining the present in more than its immediate context it may, therefore, be shocking to realize that it was only toward the beginning of the eighteenth century that there emerged a marked tendency to sequester alchemy from the new science of chemistry and, although the divorce is now irredeemable, alchemy retains its own place in the annals of human thought. Notwithstanding its centuries'-old history, modern historians have little time for alchemy--those who do spend a paragraph or two in their accounts of the sciences treat it as no more than a precursor to modern chemistry. This view led people to conclude, as Titus Burckhardt notes in his magisterial Alchemy, "that an insatiable desire to make gold had persistently caused men to believe in a heap of fantastic prescriptions, which, rightly seen, were nothing more than a popular and superstitious application of natural philosophy of the ancients".

Secrets of Nature reexamines this idea and similar popular views about alchemy and astrology. Divided into eight chapters, this book with its beautiful dust-cover jacket presents the work of ten historians of science who examine the subject from various perspectives, ranging from problems of historiography to contemporary attitudes and practices in astrology and alchemy.

The book is unevenly divided between astrology and alchemy, with a greater portion devoted to the former. Special attention has been paid to several individuals including Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, the Renaissance astrologer Girolarno Cardano, the Rosicrucians, John Dee, and the medical alchemist Simon Forman by devoting chapters to specific aspects of their work. The fourth chapter, for instance, examines dedicatory letters by Kepler and Galileo which accompanied their seminal works--Astronomia Nova (1609) and Sidereus Nuncius (1610)--bringing into sharp relief the wider socio-political milieu of the two scientists. The fifth chapter explores the legacies of Johannes Trithemius and John Dee. The book is an important contribution in the current attempts to reexamine the past from new perspectives.
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Author:Tur, Yashab
Publication:Islam & Science
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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