A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change
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A Scientific American Best Science Book of 2012
An Atlantic Wire Best Book of 2012
A New York Times Book Review “Editor's Choice”
The “fascinating” (The New Yorker) story of Athanasius Kircher, the eccentric scholar-inventor who was either a great genius or a crackpot . . . or a bit of both.
The interests of Athanasius Kircher, the legendary seventeenth-century priest-scientist, knew no bounds. From optics to music to magnetism to medicine, he offered up inventions and theories for everything, and they made him famous across Europe. His celebrated museum in Rome featured magic lanterns, speaking statues, the tail of a mermaid, and a brick from the Tower of Babel. Holy Roman Emperors were his patrons, popes were his friends, and in his spare time he collaborated with the Baroque master Bernini.
But Kircher lived during an era of radical transformation, in which the old approach to knowledge—what he called the “art of knowing”— was giving way to the scientific method and modern thought. A Man of Misconceptions traces the rise, success, and eventual fall of this fascinating character as he attempted to come to terms with a changing world.
With humor and insight, John Glassie returns Kircher to his rightful place as one of history’s most unforgettable figures.
Embalming, trans. Richard Harlan (Philadelphia: J. Dobson, 1840). See also William D. Haglund and Marcella H. Sorg, Forensic Taphonomy: The Postmortem Fate of Human Remains (Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 1997), p. 487; Pascale Trompette and Mélanie Lemonnier, “Funeral Embalming: The Transformation of a Medical Innovation,” Science Studies 22, no. 2 (2009), pp. 9–30. “The track which leads to it”: The Reverend Robert Belaney, “Our Lady of Mentorella,” The Ave Maria 51, no. 13 (Notre Dame,
the retraction of the very same swells. Guided by both his wholly clear plan and his Guardian Angel, who was directing his rudder with purpose, he observed the slipping of the waves, and forthwith directed the little ship toward the mountain side, where it was hurled into the cave by the force of the waves, more by the arrangement of God than by the industry of man; for at any other moment, while the entrance was filled with waves, we all would have perished dashed against the rocks.” When they
often vomiting, fainting, straining of the heart, great thirst, heat and burning of the throat, sticking and lividity of the tongue, foul breath, frequent stools and severe nose bleed.” Finally, usually within the week, “the poison rages within and conquers the entire body.” As soon as cases were confirmed in Trastevere, the Congregation of Health tried to contain the disease by sealing off the area. This work was done under the auspices of Kircher’s former patron Cardinal Francesco
before, the jury was still out on whether vacuums even existed. Kircher, obliged to deny the possibility of a vacuum (vacuums were abhorred by nature, per Aristotle), had been present at an inconclusive experiment involving a siphon, water, and a very long lead tube, conducted in Rome sometime in the early 1640s. Kircher disingenuously reported that it had failed. But that experiment helped inspire Evangelista Torricelli, who in 1644 not only created a vacuum but essentially invented the mercury
ostrich eggs . . . and other things: Ingrid D. Rowland, “Athanasius Kircher and the Musaeum Kircherianum,” Humanist Art Review (n.d.), www.humanistart.net/kircher_idr/kircher.htm. As long as circumstances “held me in Rome”: Vita, p. 94. “someone in each college of the entire Society”: In Baldwin, “Athanasius Kircher and the Magnetic Philosophy,” p. 85. one Jesuit in Lithuania: Michael John Gorman, “The Angel and the Compass: Athanasius Kircher’s Geographical Project,” in Paula