15.4.15

Chicago: My Kind of Town!

A number of forthcoming titles from the University of Chicago Press will be of interest to Magonia readers. The relationship between science and religion has been dealt with in a number of recent books, and Peter Harrison's book looks an interesting contribution to the topic.

The manner in which science became a part of the intellectual debate in society through the development of a popular scientific literature is the topic of James Secord's title, and the intriguing topic of invisibility makes Philip Ball's book seem particular interesting to Magonians and Forteans.

Peter Harrison. The Territories of Science and Religion. University of Chicago Press. (28 April 2015)

From the publisher's website: The conflict between science and religion seems indelible, even eternal. Surely two such opposing views of the universe have always been in fierce opposition? Actually, that's not the case, says Peter Harrison: our very concepts of science and religion are relatively recent, emerging only in the past three hundred years, and it is those very categories, rather than their underlying concepts, that constrain our understanding of how the formal study of nature relates to the religious life.

In The Territories of Science and Religion Harrison dismantles what we think we know about the two categories, then puts it all back together again in a provocative, productive new way. By tracing the history of these concepts for the first time in parallel, he illuminates alternative boundaries and little-known relations between them - thereby making it possible for us to learn from their true history, and see other possible ways that scientific study and the religious life might relate to, influence, and mutually enrich each other.

A tour de force by a distinguished scholar working at the height of his powers, The Territories of Science and Religion promises to forever alter the way we think about these fundamental pillars of human life and experience.

James A. Secord. Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age. University of Chicago Press. (April 2015)

The first half of the nineteenth century witnessed an extraordinary transformation in British political, literary, and intellectual life. There was widespread social unrest, and debates raged regarding education, the lives of the working class, and the new industrial, machine-governed world. At the same time, modern science emerged in Europe in more or less its current form, as new disciplines and revolutionary concepts, including evolution and the vastness of geologic time, began to take shape.

Visions of Science opens our eyes to how genteel ladies, working men, and the literary elite responded to these remarkable works. It reveals the importance of understanding the physical qualities of books and the key role of printers and publishers, from factories pouring out cheap compendia to fashionable publishing houses in London’s West End. Secord’s vivid account takes us to the heart of an information revolution that was to have profound consequences for the making of the modern world.

Philip Ball. Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen. Chicago University Press. (April 2015)

If offered the chance—by cloak, spell, or superpower—to be invisible, who wouldn’t want to give it a try? We are drawn to the idea of stealthy voyeurism and the ability to conceal our own acts, but as desirable as it may seem, invisibility is also dangerous. It is not just an optical phenomenon, but a condition full of ethical questions. As esteemed science writer Philip Ball reveals in this book, the story of invisibility is not so much a matter of how it might be achieved but of why we want it and what we would do with it. In this unusual and clever book, Ball shows that our fantasies about being unseen—and seeing the unseen—reveal surprising truths about who we are.


12.4.15

Knowing the Gnostics

The history and legacy of Gnostic beliefs

Andrew Philip Smith. The Secret History of the Gnostics. Watkins Publishing (14 April 2015)

The Secret History of the Gnostics offers long-awaited illumination on the mystical movement that teaches 'gnosis' - knowledge of God as opposed to unquestioning faith. Acclaimed author Andrew Phillip Smith delves into the myths and practices of this ancient movement, exploring its popularity during 2nd century AD, its subsequent decline under the weight of orthodoxy in the Church, and its present-day resurgence. Gnosticism has travelled a fascinating path - from the Manichaeans in Modern Persia between the 3rd and 7th centuries AD, to the triumphs and tragedies of the Cathars in Southern Europe between the 12th and 14th centuries, to, finally, today's Mandaeans in Iraq.

However, as the author points out, the revival of Gnosticism extends further than these narrow sects, offering inspiration to a legion of literary figures, including Dan Brown and Philip Pullman. Gnosticism's emphasis on personal over organized religion, in keeping with the doctrine of the early Christian era during which it thrived, has found particular resonance with today's multicultural world. The Secret History of the Gnostics is not simply an authoritative account of one sect's practical beliefs and customs - it is, in effect, a manifesto, an appeal to those inspired by or drawn to the Gnostic faith not to forget its origins.


10.4.15

Pagans and Philosophers

Why were pagan and pre-Christian philosophers and ideas so influential with later Christian writers?

John Marenbom. Pagans and Philosophers: The Problem of Paganism from Augustine to Leibniz. Princeton University Press. (22 March)

From the turn of the fifth century to the beginning of the eighteenth, Christian writers were fascinated and troubled by the “Problem of Paganism,” which this book identifies and examines for the first time. How could the wisdom and virtue of the great thinkers of antiquity be reconciled with the fact that they were pagans and, many thought, damned? Related questions were raised by encounters with contemporary pagans in northern Europe, Mongolia, and, later, America and China.

Pagans and Philosophers explores how writers—philosophers and theologians, but also poets such as Dante, Chaucer, and Langland, and travelers such as Las Casas and Ricci—tackled the Problem of Paganism. Augustine and Boethius set its terms, while Peter Abelard and John of Salisbury were important early advocates of pagan wisdom and virtue. University theologians such as Aquinas, Scotus, Ockham, and Bradwardine, and later thinkers such as Ficino, Valla, More, Bayle, and Leibniz, explored the difficulty in depth. Meanwhile, Albert the Great inspired Boethius of Dacia and others to create a relativist conception of scientific knowledge that allowed Christian teachers to remain faithful Aristotelians. At the same time, early anthropologists such as John of Piano Carpini, John Mandeville, and Montaigne developed other sorts of relativism in response to the issue.


7.4.15

Science - Mission Accomplished?

John Horgan. End Of Science. Basic Books (16 April 2015)

Propelled by a series of interviews with luminaries of modern science such as Stephen Hawking, Thomas Kuhn, Lynn Margulis, Roger Penrose, Francis Crick, Richard Dawkins, Freeman Dyson, Murray Gell-Mann, Stephen Jay Gould, Steven Weinberg, E. O. Wilson, and Karl Popper, science writer John Horgan makes the case that science as we have known it--of startling revelations about heretofore unrecognized aspects of reality--is over. There will be no more discoveries like those of evolution or quantum mechanics; rather, all the big questions that can be answered have been answered, all the knowledge worth pursuing has become known. The point is not that the search for a final "theory of everything" has reached its successful conclusion, but rather that the world cannot give us one.

According to Horgan, modern endeavors such as string theory are "ironic" and even "theological" in nature, not scientific, and as a result it is no surprise that no one can think of a means to confirm them. It was a controversial argument in 1996, and it remains one today, still firing up debates in labs and on the internet, not least because--as Horgan details in a lengthy new introduction--ironic science is more prevalent and powerful than ever. Still, while Horgan offers his critique, grounded in the thinking of the world's leading researchers, he offers homage, too. If science is ending, he maintains, it is only because it has done its work so well.


3.4.15

Scientific Cryptozoology

Brian D. Parsons. Handbook for the Amateur Cryptozoologist. lulu.com. (March 22, 2015, second edition)

Handbook for the Amateur Cryptozoologist explores the history and mystery behind some of the most elusive creatures found - and some that are still hidden. The handbook provides a well-balanced look at many concepts necessary to conduct proper client-based investigations. Cryptozoology has been shadowed under the umbrella of pseudoscience due to a myriad of problems. This book takes a sceptical, yet balanced, stance to help the newcomer or seasoned veteran gain solid footing into using a more scientific approach to the field. It will also arm you with the basic abilities necessary to become a successful researcher and field investigator in the field of cryptozoology. It explores the use of technology in the field as well as the methodologies behind investigations and expeditions that go beyond the television style of thrill-seeking. This handbook will be your basic guide to becoming a responsible and rational investigator in a field wrought with hoaxes and misinterpretations.


2.4.15

The Good Old Days?

Two new titles from Amberley cover topics which will be of interest to Magonia readers, examining some of the curious beliefs of previous generations.

Toni Mount. Dragon's Blood & Willow Bark: The Mysteries of Medieval Medicine. Amberley. (April 15)

Calling to mind a time when butchers and executioners knew more about anatomy than university-trained physicians, the phrase ‘Medieval Medicine’ conjures up horrors for us with our modern ideas on hygiene, instant pain relief and effective treatments. Although no one could allay the dread of plague, the medical profession provided cosmetic procedures, women’s sanitary products, dietary advice and horoscopes predicting the sex of unborn babies or the best day to begin a journey.

Surgeons performed life-saving procedures, sometimes using anaesthetics, with post-operative antibiotic and antiseptic treatments to reduce the chances of infection. They knew a few tricks to lessen the scarring, too. Yet alongside such expertise, some still believed that unicorns, dragons and elephants supplied vital medical ingredients and the caladrius bird could diagnose recovery or death.

This is the weird, wonderful and occasionally beneficial world of medieval medicine.In her new book, popular historian Toni Mount guides the reader through this labyrinth of strange ideas and such unlikely remedies as leeches, meadowsweet, roasted cat and red bed curtains – some of which modern medicine is now coming to value – but without the nasty smells or any threat to personal wellbeing and safety.

Caroline Rochford. Great Victorian Discoveries: Astounding Revelations and Misguided Assumptions. Amberley. (15 April)

Have you ever heard of a four-footed bird? Can you really teach a dog to read? Where would you find a kangaroo crossed with a lion? In this brilliant and bizarre follow-up to Great Victorian Inventions, Caroline Rochford reveals the wondrous experiments and extraordinary theories of the great minds of science, engineering and natural history of the Victorian age. Some discoveries were authentic, some merely misguided assumptions giving rise to strange beliefs.

This book exposes the curious conviction that Martians were constructing waterways on Mars and that the sun was really blue. It enters the world of botany with the discovery of a plant that had the ability to uproot itself and ‘travel’ across the landscape, along with an ornamental tree that ‘ate’ iron nails. Within these pages you can relive the moment when a German medical student accidentally splashed a liquid chemical on to his face and found it turned his eye numb, thus discovering local anaesthetic, and learn how green Victorians tackled the threat to fossil fuels by converting straw into energy.


31.3.15

Magic in the West

Two titles from Cambridge presenting a broad historical survey of Western magic and the occult.

David J. Collin. The Cambridge History of Magic and Witchcraft in the West: From Antiquity to the Present. Cambridge University Press (April 2015)

This book presents twenty chapters by experts in their fields, providing a thorough and interdisciplinary overview of the theory and practice of magic in the West. Its chronological scope extends from the Ancient Near East to twenty-first-century North America; its objects of analysis range from Persian curse tablets to US neo-paganism. For comparative purposes, the volume includes chapters on developments in the Jewish and Muslim worlds, evaluated not simply for what they contributed at various points to European notions of magic, but also as models of alternative development in ancient Mediterranean legacy. Similarly, the volume highlights the transformative and challenging encounters of Europeans with non-Europeans, regarding the practice of magic in both early modern colonization and more recent decolonization.

Brian P. Copenhaver. Magic in Western Culture: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment. Cambridge University Press (30 April 2015)

The story of the beliefs and practices called 'magic' starts in ancient Iran, Greece, and Rome, before entering its crucial Christian phase in the Middle Ages. Centering on the Renaissance and Marsilio Ficino - whose work on magic was the most influential account written in premodern times - this groundbreaking book treats magic as a classical tradition with foundations that were distinctly philosophical. Besides Ficino, the premodern story of magic also features Plotinus, Iamblichus, Proclus, Aquinas, Agrippa, Pomponazzi, Porta, Bruno, Campanella, Descartes, Boyle, Leibniz, and Newton, to name only a few of the prominent thinkers discussed in this book. Because pictures play a key role in the story of magic, this book is richly illustrated.