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May 6, 2009
By Mike Wolterbeek
For the past 30 years, history professor Bruce Moran has been spending his summers in the Scientific Revolution of 1400-1700. His painstaking research into the roots of science and medicine spawned six books, scores of articles and acclaim, including his latest accolade, being named Outstanding Researcher of the Year at the University of Nevada, Reno.
His ongoing work and world-renowned research into alchemy as a precursor of modern science and medicine may seem a bit obscure, though also enlightening. It’s a subject that has been disparaged and disowned for centuries, he said, and now it’s being brought out in the daylight, and is planned as the focus of a special section in the authoritative international history of science journal ISIS in 2010.
Historical alchemy has received more attention in the past few years as researchers discover more about the evolution of science and medicine. Moran’s latest book on the subject “Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy, Chemistry and the Scientific Revolution” is required reading at several universities, including UCLA and USC.
“It came as a surprise,” Moran said of receiving the award. “It’s really humbling; I’m thrilled, gratified and appreciative of the acknowledgement. There are so many people on campus who could, just as easily, receive this award, and when I think of those who have been acknowledged by the award in the past — WOW, to be a part of that group is truly overwhelming.”
“Awards like this,” Moran said, “help to reassert a fundamental mission of any university – to create knowledge as well as to communicate it. It’s a privilege to be in a department, a college, and a university that promotes and values scholarship.”
Moran will receive his award at the annual “Honor the Best” ceremony May 13 at the University of Nevada, Reno which recognizes outstanding faculty, staff and students. This year’s Honor the Best ceremony will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. in the Joe Crowley Student Union Ballroom on the 4th Floor.
Moran has been at the University of Nevada, Reno since 1976, teaching a variety of history classes centered around his specialty of the history of science, early medicine, European culture and intellectual history.
“I like going to work, it’s invigorating, exciting,” he said. “Research keeps me alive.” After teaching through the school year, his research takes him to other parts of the world. He spends a lot of time in Germany, Italy, and Great Britain, and this summer is looking forward to visiting a collection of rare alchemical texts in Glasgow.
“As a historian I spend a lot of time with people who aren’t physically there,” he said of those he studies. “When I close the door in a research room it actually becomes a very a full place.” The people with whom Moran surrounds himself aren’t necessarily the marquee scientists. “It’s not just about Newton, Galileo, Ptolemy or Copernicus,” he said. “My work engages the large number of people who don’t get recognized but who are doing and making things, mixing, combining and discovering how the world works through their hands. Some of these are alchemists, the technical chemists of the period, who are directly experiencing the processes of the world.”
Using a fair amount of philology (history of linguistics) Moran has spent hours and hours bent over hundreds-year-old texts, deciphering the Latin, Greek, German (and German in its formative years) or early English languages of books, letters, essays and diaries.
“The thrill of the historian is to be able to huddle over things that only a few people have seen,” Moran said. “There’s an instant connection with a far distant world, with its values and frustrations, and with the ways that it has attempted to explain the operations of nature and the body.
Alchemy isn’t just about turning base metals into gold or silver, it’s about transforming and changing in a variety of ways. Those interested in the processes of change were both philosophers and artisans. “I’m interested in the hands-on-experience of those who attempted to create change and to make things, and who, by so-doing, influenced new directions in learning about the natural world.”
Failure is important to learning, Moran argues. We usually hear of the great successes in the history of science, but people often needed to claw out their discoveries through a great deal of trial and err.
“Focusing upon such subjects as historical alchemy amounts to a sea change in the way the history of science is being written,” said Moran who is responsible for helping to turn this page of history. “We are creating a much fuller picture of what pertains to the history of science, and who is included in it. We are paying attention to those who perfected the practical knowledge and skills that lie behind the scenes of the greats like Galileo and Newton. Those guys are the most recognizable personalities. However, they’re like the top part of an iceberg, truly visible, but with a whole bunch that is unseen holding them up. I’m trying to make that part (the part beneath the surface) part of a new story in the history of science.”