Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

Review of The Last Sorcerers: The Path from Alchemy to the Periodic Table by Richard Morris

(Joseph Henry Press, 248 pages, $24.95, October, 2003)

and Mendeleyev's Dream: The Quest for the Elements by Paul Strathern

(Berkeley, 320 pages, $14.00 paperback, 2000)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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The primary purpose of most book reviews is not criticism or analysis but something vastly more important to publishers and readers. Simply put, the reviewer's essential task is to connect books with their audience. For Richard Morris' The Last Sorcerers: The Path from Alchemy to the Periodic Table, that can be done in one sentence. If you enjoyed Mendeleyev's Dream: The Quest for the Elements by Paul Stratherncover, then you should include The Last Sorcerers on your reading list.

As their subtitles suggest, the two books overlap considerably and include many of the same memorable people and events. Major portions of both books are devoted to the late Renaissance, when alchemy began to merge with science, and the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when measurement, rational theories, and the open discourse of chemistry replaced alchemy's secret recipes and empiricism.

Both discuss with appropriate humor the wanderings of Philipus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, who called himself Paracelsus and practiced a new brand of medicine based on alchemical knowledge and techniques. Both tell the story of Robert Boyle who dropped the "al" from alchemy and insisted that only experimentation could determine what was an element. In both books, readers meet the eccentric and reclusive Henry Cavendish whose legacy was meticulous experimentation and a fortune that endowed one of the world's premier laboratories. Both discuss the brilliant mind of Antoine Lavoisier that flourished in pre-revolutionary France and was extinguished in an instant by the guillotine in 1794. And so it goes through Dalton and his atomic theory to Mendeleyev and his periodic table of the chemical elements.

Despite the similarities, there are good reasons for science readers to have both books on their shelves. Mendeleyev's Dream has more detail on the earlier practice of alchemy and about the lives of the people in many of the stories in common. Still, The Last Sorcerers manages to convey alchemy's more practical side without neglecting the mysticism and sorcery, and it even tells more about the life of Mendeleyev himself than does Mendeleyev's Dream.

Of the two, only The Last Sorcerers goes beyond Mendeleyev. Its penultimate chapter includes the stories of several twentieth-century scientists whose discoveries about the quantum mechanical atom explain the periodic properties of Mendeleyev's table, and it closes with a whirlwind tour of subatomic particles (among them protons, neutrons, mesons, electrons, and neutrinos) and sub-subatomic quarks and superstrings.

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of numerous children's science books, including a six-book Library of Subatomic Particles for junior high school readers.