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The Secrets of Alchemy

4.07  ·  Rating details ·  177 ratings  ·  29 reviews
Alchemy, the “Noble Art,” conjures up scenes of mysterious, dimly lit laboratories populated with bearded old men stirring cauldrons. Though the history of alchemy is intricately linked to the history of chemistry, alchemy has nonetheless often been dismissed as the realm of myth and magic, or fraud and pseudoscience. And while its themes and ideas persist in some expected ...more
Hardcover, 281 pages
Published November 1st 2012 by University of Chicago Press
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4.07  · 
Rating details
 ·  177 ratings  ·  29 reviews

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Atila Iamarino
Jan 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
Lawrence M. Principe realmente entende do que está escrevendo. O livro passa pelo começo da alquimia até o seu fim, ou declínio, com o começo da ciência moderna. E o autor faz um excelente trabalho de explicar não só o que os alquimistas pensavam, como porque eles pensavam o que pensavam. Ao invés de ficar na exposição das ideias, na linha do "olha que ridículo o que achavam", suas explicações vão na linha do "claro que isso fazia sentido quando a referência que tinham desse processo na época er ...more
Sep 30, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, religion, science
Like most modern people, I've thought of alchemy as something more magic than science, but Principe manages to walk us back to a time when science, philosophy, religion (and some slight of hand) were intertwined. Using the term "chymistry" to over-ride our our internal definitions of chemistry and alchemy, he presents an interesting history of the history of alchemy and the infancy of chemistry.
Mar 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Delightful! Exactly what I hoped for.

This book is exactly what I was hoping for: a casually readable but serious investigation of the history of alchemy, explanation of their arcane language, chemical foundations, and especially a telescope onto the mind of proto-scientific mankind. The book is very well written and easily readable, but so delightfully informative. The author’s own experiments with centuries-old alchemical recipes was the icing on the cake—to understand the old methods with 21st
Catarina PB
Dec 30, 2018 rated it really liked it
An okey book book, with tons of information but I wished it included history until the present day~
Jun 11, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
I freely admit that I went looking for books on alchemy after watching Fullmetal Alchemist :)

This is a very interesting, well written, and informative look at the history of alchemy. I had a vague idea that alchemy was a form of magic, with some haphazard chemistry thrown in (aka potions), but this book shows that alchemy was more rational, systematic, and socially productive than I ever would have guessed. The author recreates historical laboratory techniques and tests alchemical recipes, expla
Heather Jones
May 28, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I’ve been whining about “where were all these books on alchemy last year when I was doing the primary research for The Mystic Marriage? In this case, the answer is “not published yet”. There does seem to be a nebulous “interest in alchemy” front passing through, which I can only hope will be positive for the reception of my novel. This is exactly the sort of readable but solidly historical general history of the field that I was searching for. (The best I could find last year was a bit too inves ...more
Acco Spoot
Mar 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
This was a really fascinating book. I primarily wanted to read it for more cursory knowledge of the 17th and 18th centuries (knowing that Alchemy was in the midst of a golden age at that point) but found so much more.
With a background in chemistry the author (Lawrence Princip) is able to approach the highly overly mysticised subject of Alchemy, not falling into the trap of flippant dismissal or over-exhuberant delusions, instead approaching in rational terms and revealing the true craft and inte
Jeff Lewonczyk
Oct 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
A brief but rich history of the historical, philosophical and scientific development of alchemy and how it eventually branched off into both chemistry and mysticism. Principe does a great job of bringing out representative texts regarding the discipline from Greek times to the 19th Century and even reproduces a number of alchemical "recipes" in his laboratory in order to determine where science ends and speculation begins. A great introduction.
Nick Koss
Jan 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A fantastic overview of alchemy as a long-standing tradition rooted in logic, reason, and experimentation, later tainted by quackery (a well-earned status thanks to some practitioners, no doubt), and eventually re-interpreted as pseudo-science, mysticism, and psychological fantasy. Worth the read for the scientist and the mystic alike!
Aug 04, 2018 rated it really liked it
Interesting read providing a scholarly overview of the history of alchemy and its relationship to modern day chemistry. In some of the most interesting parts of the book the author attempts to recreate alchemical experiments in order to understand their reported observations.
T. Hampton
Jan 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, history
Interesting and informative. It is by no means (as the author himself states), a thorough treatise on the subject of alchemy. What he set out to do, he did very well, I thought. This book provides an excellent overview of a rather broad subject.
Bruno Godinho
Principe's book is very good, from the standpoint of a history of science. And for this very reason it fails to explain what were the cultural reasons for the belief in alchemy. As we can see, many of the described experiments of the alchemists rest on purely observational things: the "Hermes' Tree" is nothing but a reaction inside a tube that grows in a tree-like shape. This, however, is not sufficient. Principe - as the rest of the authors that follow a strictly "scientific history" agenda - d ...more
Ben McFarland
Oct 08, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Is it a paradox to say that a book titled The Secrets of Alchemy is open and brisk? Treatments of alchemy to this point have been either rationalist dismissals of the practice and all it represented, or dense historical works that get as lost in the details as the alchemists themselves did. In this book, Lawrence M. Principe lays out a targeted and clear (at least, as much as is possible!) history of the subject. He actually tried to carry out the described experiments, and when he encountered f ...more
Jan 04, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: own, alchemy, history
Principe's summary and evaluation of hermetic alchemy as understood by occult practitioners of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is at best myopic. He conveniently overlooks in this section natural poetical metonymy of language (though he appears to love the term Decknamen), the overt mythological and theological references in dozens of pre-nineteenth-century alchemical plates, paintings, and treatises, and Blake's, Scot's and others' treatments of alchemy years before the occult ...more
Alan Lenton
Oct 13, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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 of 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 va
Karla Huebner
This book provides a remarkably clear and readable history of alchemy from ancient to modern times. That's not to say that everything about alchemy is or can be clarified, but the author does an impressive job of conveying what scholars have learned (he points out that many recent books repeat errors that had long ago been cleared up by scholars writing in other languages) and places alchemical practices within their historical context(s). Rather dazzlingly, he even manages to unravel some of th ...more
Tikitu De
Textual history is freaking complicated... From pg 31: "The exact origin of the /[Emerald] Tablet/ remains obscure. Most evidence indicates that it was written centuries after the bulk of the philosophical or technical /Hermetica/, and that it is an original Arabic composition dating from the eighth century. No Greek precursor or any earlier Greek citations of it have been located despite exhaustive searches. It first appeared appended to a work which itself has complex and obscure origins, the ...more
Joseph F.
Sep 14, 2014 rated it it was amazing
What I thought was a book on the history of an occult subject, turned out to be to my surprise, was a book on the history of science! Chemistry specifically. And it was a great surprise.
Turns out, alchemist were not pitiful tinkerers wasting time on an impossible goal.
They were serious scientist for their time; at least how science at the time was understood.
Before atomic theory, there was no reason why you could not to base metals into gold.
Also, to my surprise, all that talk of alchemists conc
Sep 30, 2014 rated it really liked it
I feel like I'm repeating myself when I say my biggest complaint about a book is that I wanted more of it, but I can't help it; I really wanted more of this book. It's a slim little tome (Amazon says 296 pages, but I think the main text barely topped 200) - in this small space the author fits in both a history of alchemy and several practical experiments he conducted following the ancient instructions. This is rather fascinating, not to mention pretty educational, and as alluded to above, my onl ...more
Mar 23, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Very good high level review of the many eras of alchemy. Of course I'm biased because I though Prof. Principe was a great Organic Chemistry I and II professor back at Hopkins. I found it very interesting in how Dr. Principe relayed the results of performing the alchemical experiments in his own lab. He brought the reader through "disinformation" and hidden meaning of the original alchemists and explained how images in contemporary texts could be actual reagents.

Dr. Principe took the mostly chron
Michael Aaron
Feb 10, 2013 rated it liked it
This book lives up to its name - you will learn how to create the Philosopher's Stone. The downside is, it will also tell you how the mythology surrounding the fabled object came to be, and why it never worked as advertised.

Not a fun or easy read - the author's style is quite dry, almost deliberately avoiding any sign of awe and wonder, no doubt to lend gravitas to a subject that has seen more than its fair share of fantasy and hyperbole over the years. In fact, so great are the lengths the aut
Curtis Runstedler
Mar 25, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Essential and very comprehensive! I was particularly drawn to the medieval Arabic and Latin sections, but it's an exhaustive and concise study. While it seems to be aimed at both a general audience, it's still very intellectual, featuring some fascinating insights on the allegorical function of alchemy. The study and its practices are so well explained. It would be interesting to hear more about alchemy in a literary context rather than just scientific treatises (still endlessly fascinating thou ...more
April Munday
Oct 15, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: bought-in-2016
A useful and interesting introduction to the history of alchemy. Principe examines the theory and practice of alchemy over two millennia and makes the always useful point that people in the past did not think in the same way as we do.
Allison Thurman
Aug 05, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I've been researching the history of alchemy for a novel I'm writing and this is the first and only concise history I've found on this overwhelming topic. If you're interested in the history of medieval and early modern alchemy (as opposed to modern/spiritual interpretations) START HERE!
Jan 05, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: own-ebook, nonfiction
One of the best "history of science" books I've ever read. It's well written, carefully researched, and really helped me understand this science from the perspective of those who practiced it.
Phil Lawless
Jan 16, 2016 rated it really liked it
A very unusual book
Mar 14, 2013 rated it liked it
Academic book - interesting but perhaps too scholarly for casual reading - dry in spots.
Bob Finch
Jan 17, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, science
Enlightening history of chemistry from a perspective rarely taken.
very interesting , but only if you care for the subject otherwise it gets dull
rated it it was amazing
Jul 30, 2016
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