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Science Books

February 2, 2006

The Devil's Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science
Philip Ball (2006)
ISBN: 0374229791

The 2005 Aventis Science Book Prize winner Philip Ball, Critical Mass (2004), deftly brings to life the intellectually rich and fertile period of the Renaissance via his colorful subject, Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim. Born in Switzerland in 1493, he liked to refer to himself as Paracelsus, so the book is not as long as it may have been had Paracelsus been a stickler for using his full name. Forget all the other try-hards during this period, claims Ball, if you really want to get to grips with what was going on during the 16th century's "intellectual ferment," you have to cast an eye Paracelsus' way. Paracelsus was a complex character whose favored disciplines, medicine, biology and alchemy, made for an incongruous mix that mirrored a shift in thinking toward an age of science and rationalism. You could say that he was the Renaissance personified. Mystery, rumor and myth cloak much of Paracelsus' life, but Ball deliberately and deftly manages to hew much of Paracelsus' character from the age itself. Shunned by all who had a stake in maintaining a hold on conservative and traditional ways of thinking, such as the medical establishment and universities, Paracelsus was at the wrong end of all manner of attacks. But as a man of contradiction, Paracelsus also became a legend in his own lifetime; with tales of magical horses and elixirs of life, his name has often been associated with that of Faust. The Devil's Doctor is also a fascinating adventure into past medical practices, such as medieval and Islamic medicine. Most of these treatments relied upon sourcing medicinal ingredients from nature, many of which were still not entirely understood and deemed magical. In this way Ball has produced a book that shows the emergence of a new era of scientific discovery from a world of superstition and dogma.

The Winds of Change: Climate, Weather, and the Destruction of Civilizations
Eugene Linden (2006)
ISBN: 0684863529

Weather patterns can be either beneficial or destructive to life, so it's no great mystery why much reverence and worship were afforded weather patterns by past civilizations. And today, whole nations are often laid to waste in the wake of drought and flood, leaving their populations starving and homeless. Author Eugene Linden, who has written about the environment for 20 years, sees a pattern here, and thinks that if we pay more attention to weather patterns, suffering and misery will become a less regular occurrence. Linden argues his point based on the notion that weather is a maker or breaker of empires and civilizations depending on what measures are taken to prevent disasters. Linden believes that societies become complacent during more hospitable weather only to be caught unaware when the weather turns ugly and disaster inevitably strikes; causing disease, starvation and civil disorder. Linden is, to put it mildly, slightly miffed that leaders have decided to deal with the problem of climate change by sticking their heads in the sand. While debates rage over whether climate change is human induced or a natural occurrence, Linden argues that there is little action being taken to counter its unpredictable and destructive effects. But while Linden tells us to batten down the hatches in preparation for the worst, he also predicts that there could come a time when weather and its overwhelming consequences may be beyond all preparation. As it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore the bizarre weather patterns taking hold of the planet, there are few better sources to discover what is happening, and what is going to happen, than The Winds of Change.

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