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The Secrets of Alchemy (Synthesis) Hardcover – 16 Nov 2012

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press (16 Nov. 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226682951
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226682952
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 2.8 x 22.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 500,725 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


"Making sense out of alchemy is nearly as consuming and difficult a project as making gold with it. Lawrence M. Principe has the requisite clarity of mind and purity of heart, as well as a willingness to risk getting burned (literally!). The Secrets of Alchemy is an eminently lucid treatment of a tenebrous subject, at once learned and reader-friendly, and enormously winning." -John Crowley, author of Little, Big"

About the Author

Lawrence M. Principe is the Drew Professor of the Humanities in the Department of the History of Science and Technology at Johns Hopkins University. His books include Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Alan Lenton on 9 Oct. 2014
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The first thing to note about this book is that the title is somewhat misleading. It would be more accurate to call it a history of alchemy. I was nearly put off buying it because of its title, but in retrospect I'm glad I wasn't, because it's a very interesting book.

What the author sets out to do is to restore an understanding alchemy within its historical and cultural framework. I think he succeeds in this aim. There is in Western society a tendency to think of alchemy as being something vaguely to do with magic - but nothing could be further from the truth. The work of most alchemists would be recognized today as experimentally rigorous, and based on the best theories of the nature of matter that existed at the time.

Take, for instance, the search for the legendary Philosopher's Stone, the secret of turning lead into gold. We know that's not possible to do chemically today. Why do we know that? Because we know that lead and gold are elements. The elements are defined by the number of protons in their nucleus. Chemical reactions only work on the electrons in atoms, and you can't change the make up of an atomic nucleus by fiddling with its electrons.

But we didn't find this out until about a hundred years ago. In the golden age of alchemy, which roughly coincides with the Scientific Revolution (1500-1700), the belief was that matter was a compound, and the properties of any given piece of matter were determined by the proportions of more fundamental substances. Theoretically, if this were the case it should have been possible to change, for instance, lead into gold by altering those proportions in lead until they matched the proportions that defined gold. It was this theoretical view that drove the search for a substance that alter these proportions.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By C. Harris on 23 April 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
An interesting account of the history of alchemy. I was hoping for a little more on the early, graeco-roman period, but the lack of material is historical, and not the author's fault. He makes an interesting case for the theories of some of the Arabic alchemists to be considered as proto-scientific. This is not a book for New Age types, but for those with a rational interest in the subject.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By John Rowland on 21 Feb. 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A readable, rational approach which explains the mumbo-jumbo without condecension. By the standards of the times, alchemy was a model of clarity compared with theology, for instance. (It still is!) The author describes his 'hands-on' repeats of some 'Alchemical' procedures......and they work.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful By c.w.thuvis on 3 Jan. 2015
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For me, who was looking for, and is interested in "spiritual alchemy", it was very disappointing to read in this book, about the history, and developmet of alchemy. another illusion, and romantic notion shattered. But that does not mean is is a badly written, or badly informed book. The writer seems to know, both in practice and theory, what he is writing about, and his writing style, is also, not to bad.Just a shame.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 20 reviews
20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Great read about the history of science 4 Mar. 2013
By Randy VonSmith - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
First, I'm a chemist by training and have always had a deep interest in the history of science. There was never a clean line between Alchemy and Chemistry; more a blend in time. This book explores what the alchemist were looking for and how they often found it (not just Pb > Au, but improvements in metallurgy, manufacturing, and medicine; the things that science still use to make money by changing inexpensive starting material into valuable products) . It explores the world view at the time and how this effected the science (yes, alchemist, the good ones, were scientist) and how they observed nature and proposed models for how the world worked. Very well written and very enjoyable. I particularly enjoyed how the author went to the laboratory (an often overlooked endever in other "alchemy" books) and reproduced some of the early experiments and they worked; and then went on to explain why they worked and how the actual chemistry accounted for the observed results!!! My only regret was that there were not more examples of these experiments, but even the few that are presented are worth the price of the book. If you enjoy the history of science this would be a great addition to your library.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
I knew I was on the right track! 27 Jun. 2013
By Marcello Malpighi - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Back in the '80s I was dabbling in alchemy, trying to decipher the allegoric drawings in Balise Valentin's 12 keys and other alchemy books like Fulcanelli's. I came to the conclusion that it was the same story repeated over and over: cold vs warm, male vs female, dead vs reborn. Later, as I was collecting ancient science books, I obtained a "book of secrets" from the 1500's from the alchemist Pedemontani; aka JJ Wecker. My joke was that the gold making wasn't working out, so these scientists had to make a living by publishing - very successfully - do-it-yourself books. The Secrets of Alchemy put these two disparate worlds together, and it all make sense! The author obviously loves his subject, respects it and has the depth of understanding I will likely never have. His re-creations of experiments was my favorite part of the book. Once stripped of the modern thinking (my copper sulfate was 99.9% pure, I never thought that I should play with impurities), and replaced in the context of the time (the inter-connectivity of all things), alchemy becomes a solid and reasonable pursuit of practical knowledge. The emphasis is on "practical", which now explains these "books of secrets". A great read, an even better read the second time around if you prepare your mind to think like a 1500's scientist. I do hope there will be a sequel, more keys, more historical context, more religious interferences, more insights in the every day lives of these undervalued scientists.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Magnificent, excellent 8 Sept. 2013
By rommert van den bos - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This book brought me joy and lots of pleasure and insight. After a few pages I remembered why I decided to become a chemist (or ‘chymyst’?) about sixty years ago. I appreciate the reverence for our ancestor chymysts and the respect paid to them by the author. This book sheds new light on a profession that has for long times be considered as only fraudulous, magical, in search only of an impossible ‘Stone’. As a student in Amsterdam one of my textbooks on the History of Science was a text by Dijksterhuis (‘De mechanisering van het wereldbeeld’: The mechanization of our world view) and I remember the negative tone in which alchemy was treated.
Secondly I highly respect the author for the ease in using foreign and even dead languages; I am sure that a lot more of old texts after being deciphered and translated will bring more information about this field of science but this will demand not only knowledge of chemistry but also ability in reading these difficult languages.
Thirdly, it was great fun to see the author’s efforts to understand, translate and apply the old recipes and seeing the outcome of his own experiments. I could almost feel his thrill after seeing suddenly the ‘new and unexpected’ in his experiments.
In my view this wonderful book is a must for all present day chemistry students and definitely a great gift to the community of chemists worldwide!
Dr. Rommert van den Bos, den Haag, Netherlands
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Book is well-written 25 Aug. 2013
By L. Schmidt - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This book has everyone one needs to uncover the TRUE alchemical history from ancient times through modern era. The author has done more than the base level of research and is extremely knowledgeable beyond the confines of simply the chemistry or the history. Oftentimes, authors of alchemy texts tend to focus only on one or the other or only on the mystical aspects. Dr. Principe bridges across all disciplines to provide a synthetic work that is going to become the final authority on the subject. Excellently written with just enough commentary to keep the casual reader entertained and enough meat to satisfy scientific or historical rigorous readers.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Mysteries Past & Present 31 May 2013
By Chemistry One - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition
This scholarly text is entertainingly written and can be comfortbly read in two or three days. There are copious notes and literature references.
The author covers alchemy in ancient Egypt, Greek and Roman times ,Medieval Europe and up to
fairly modern times. I learned a new word "chrysopoeia" meaning production of gold from base metals.
One of the enduring aims of alchemists. Another dream was the "philosopher's stone" which could transmute metals -some claimed in a catalytic process. A third quest was the "alkahest" or universal solvent. Unanswered was the question "what do you keep it in for storage ?"
Fascinating are the connections between religion and alchemy. Metals were assumed to have a "spirit"
which could be liberated. Paracelsus, the inventor of iatrochemistry , taught that metals were
composed of mercury, sulfur and salt. He pioneered the use of mercury compounds in medicine.
The book is enhanced by many illustrations, including color plates of old masters' concepts of
alchemists at work.
Throughout the author emphasizes that even though the modern tendency is to ridicule alchemists as charlatans, they were in many cases excellent experimentalists- even though they tended to be secretive about their methods and use deliberately obscure and confusing modes of expression.
The author has decoded some of these descriptions and actually repeated the work in a modern laboratory.
A highly recommended book in my opinion.
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