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Modern Alchemy: Occultism and the Emergence of Atomic Theory (New)

by Morrisson, Mark

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Binding: Hardcover with dust jacket

Book ID: 9780195306965, 0195306961


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While many alchemists were intelligent and well-intentioned thinkers, their experiments are usually regarded as failed wizardry, not scientific investigation. Whether seeking to produce a miraculous panacea or struggling to transmute lead into gold, the alchemists' extreme goals faded with the rise of scientific pursuits. The transition from alchemy to modern science is thus seen as one that discarded fantastic ideas about philosopher's stones and magic potions in exchange for modest yet steady results. It has been rarely noted, however, that the birth of atomic science coincided with an efflorescence of occultism and alchemical tropes that attached deep significance to questions about the nature of matter and energy.

Mark S. Morrisson explores this brief revival of scientific interest in alchemy and its surprising connections to the emerging subatomic sciences of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He shows that a resurfacing of occult circles and alchemical tropes had a traceable impact upon the science of the day. He reveals unexpected interactions between science and the occult, such as the Alchemical Society in London (1912-1915), the research program of "clairvoyant chemistry," and the attempts of academic chemists, inspired by the alchemy revival, to transmute the elements-even to make gold.

Morrisson's important research uncovers the surprising story of how this alchemical revival influenced, and was in turn profoundly shaped by, conceptions of matter emerging from the new science of radioactivity. Examining scientists' publications, correspondence, talks, and laboratory notebooks as well as the writings of occultists, alchemical tomes, and science fiction stories, Morrisson argues that as modern nuclear physics was born, the trajectories of science and occultism-usually seen as antithetical-briefly converged.


* Significant contribution to the fields of history of science and history of occultism.
* Proposes the interesting theory that hermetic and Theosophical groups were attempting to re-enchant science.


"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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