John Glassie’s A Man of Misconceptions (Riverhead Books 2012) is an immensely entertaining account of the life and times of Athanasius Kircher (1601/2–1680), a Jesuit scholar who escaped the Thirty Years War ravaging his native Germany to become famous throughout Europe for his prolific writing, museum of curiosities, and peculiar scientific theories.
Kircher lived at the intersection of the old dogmatic and the new empirical approach to science. His work reflects that ambiguity: masses of carefully collected empirical data, awkwardly forced into a grand divine unity of creation. Kircher gathered countless writings, relics, and anecdotes from ancient and contemporary cultures across the world, but his attempts to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs were doomed by his conviction that they must contain antediluvian divine wisdom fitting Christian doctrine. (Indeed it is not clear whether he had seriously attempted any translation at all, or simply made it up…)
Kircher built numerous functional devices to amaze his visitors, from megaphones to image projectors. He derived solid hygienic advice from his observation of microscopic organisms, and even had himself lowered into the Vesuvius to examine its interior, resulting in some shrewd guesses at the dynamics of lava and volcanoes. And yet his favorite physical theory was a universal magnetism that emanates from God, governing everything from planetary motion to snake venom. So while Kircher’s extensive compilations were widely perused by the more rigorous scientists of the age, his theories rapidly dwindled to a source of amusement.
Kircher was a fascinating figure during the infancy of modern science, and the equally erudite and humorous A Man of Misconceptions is a wonderful read for anyone interested in the man and his era. To whet your appetite, enjoy these Kircheriania on the Internet:
- John Glassie excerpts his own book in Athanasius, Underground on Kircher’s Mundus Subterraneus (1665), covering all things earthy and subterranean as well as oceans and – why not? – the moon.
- Daniel Stolzenberg’s Athanasius Kircher and the Hieroglyphic Sphinx on Kircher’s Egyptian Oedipus (1655), a massive treatise on Egyptian hieroglyphs and exotic cultures. This is an excerpt from Stolzenberg’s book on the subject.
- Athanasius Kircher’s beautiful Musurgia Universalis (1650) reproduces a number of exquisite engravings from the great compendium on the history and science of music that pioneered the baroque doctrine of affections. The University of Glasgow shows more sample pages from a hand-colored edition.
- Athanasius Kircher’s cross-section of Noah’s Ark, an amusingly detailed image from Arca Noë (1675) courtesy of Harvard’s Houghton Library.
- Combinatorial Music, Augmented Face-Substitution & Projection Systems showcases several Kircher inventions, with illustrations and descriptions, from Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae (1646) and Musurgia Universalis (1650).
- Athanasius Kircher at Stanford hosts various Athanasius Kircher collections and research activities at Stanford University, including a whimsical frontispiece of Kircher seated on a crocodile
- The Terrifying Katzenklavier: An Organ Made of Cats has been widely ascribed to Kircher, but it’s unclear whether he invented or even mentioned it. At any rate it’s too good to pass up, so you can admire the Wikimedia Commons image below.