This is the vivid, unconventional story of Athanasius Kircher, the legendary seventeenth-century priest-scientist who was either a great genius or a colossal crackpot . . . or a bit of both.
Kircher’s interests 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.
About John Glassie
John Glassie, a former contributing editor to The New York Times Magazine, has written for The Believer, McSweeney’s, The New York Times, Salon, Wired, and other publications. He is the author of the photo book Bicycles Locked to Poles and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
In his introduction, former New York Times Magazine contributing editor Glassie (Bicycles Locked to Poles, 2005) begins by describing the now-forgotten polymath as nothing less than “a champion of wonder, a man of awe-inspiring erudition and inventiveness, who…helped advance the cause of humankind.” Born in what is now central Germany in 1602, Kircher entered the Jesuit order as a seminarian, teaching mathematics, philosophy and other subjects, before eventually becoming ordained as a priest. He wrote more than 30 books on Egyptian hieroglyphics, volcanoes, optics, Chinese history and more. However, even by the standards of his time, Kircher was often completely wrong, and his scientific books were sometimes “valued more for the entertainment than the information it provided.” This did not stop his books from being “read, if not always respected, by the smartest minds of the time.” Kircher and his work enjoyed a modicum of fame during his lifetime, but even before his death, his reputation was already in decline. Glassie does his best to place his subject in the larger context of the age, but as the book soldiers on, it becomes increasingly difficult to see why Kircher warrants a full biography. Links to his contemporaries often feel tacked-on, such as the description of Kircher’s relationship with Queen Christina of Sweden. In the case of Sir Isaac Newton, these links are stretched extremely thin, as Glassie claims that “[t]here is no way to know if Newton read Kircher, but it’s very likely that he did.” – Kirkus Reviews
A Far-Out And Forgotten Renaissance Man
NPR Book Review – November 18, 2012 (Excerpt)
Back in the 17th century, right around the time when the ideas of great thinkers like Descartes and Newton and Hobbes began to shape the world, a Jesuit priest named Athanasius Kircher also tried to make his mark.
Kircher was something of a jack-of-all-trades. He wrote more than 30 books; he was a philosopher, an inventor, a historian, a scientist. Back in his day, everyone knew about him. But it didn’t help his reputation that many of his theories and inventions just couldn’t hold water.
He declared there were Egyptian roots in Chinese society, touted the existence of mermaids and said the inside of the Earth contained passageways and oceans. And so the legacy of Kircher has largely been forgotten. But author John Glassie brings back his story in his new book, A Man of Misconceptions.
“I’m a big fan of crackpots, and I think that’s one of the reasons that I wrote the book,” Glassie tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Thing Considered.
Born in Germany, Kircher wound up in Rome, “living the life of a Jesuit polymath with an insatiable curiosity — which he indulged in just about everything,” Glassie says. [Read the full article...]
A 17th-Century Genius, a Quack, or Perhaps Both
The New York Times Book Review – December 30, 2012 (Excerpt)
In 2002 the New York Institute for the Humanities organized a symposium under the title “Was Athanasius Kircher the Coolest Guy Ever, or What?“ The highlights of this 17th-century German Jesuit polymath’s sprawling résumé, summed up in John Glassie’s brisk new biography, suggest the question wasn’t completely absurd.
Kircher’s dozens of books — totaling some seven million words in Latin — covered optics, magnetism, geology, volcanology, medicine, archaeology, acoustics, Sinology and much, much more. He invented machines for generating mathematical music, did research on a universal language and collaborated with Bernini on the spectacular Fountain of the Four Rivers in Rome, where Kircher spent much of his adult life. He claimed to have deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics and was one of the first to use a microscope to study disease. Visitors flocked to his Museum Kircherianum to see mermaids’ tails, talking statues and other wonders, not least the great genius himself.
True, few of Kircher’s big ideas, elaborated in gargantuan books like “The Great Art of Knowing,” hold up today, if they even held up then. Descartes, after flipping through Kircher’s 1641 treatise on magnetism, pronounced him “more of a charlatan than a scholar.” But then did Descartes ever build a vomiting machine or a clock powered by a sunflower seed, let alone design a “cat piano” played by pricking the tails of seven cats with differently pitched cries? Enough said. [Read the full article...]
Mistakes? He Made a Few - ‘A Man of Misconceptions,’ by John Glassie
The New York Times Book Review – January 4, 2013 (Excerpt)
Scientists talk about “paradigm shifts” as if they happen suddenly.One day, there’s this paradigm. The next day, Bam! another one comes along. But, oh, how that leaves out the fun parts! The gray zones. The in-between periods of experimentation, play and openness. When it comes to the history of the so-called scientific revolution, that binary telling would certainly skip over one of history’s more bizarre and largely forgotten thinkers, the 17th-century Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher.
Kircher would be delighted to know that he’s the subject of a new biography, courtesy of John Glassie. Though he might have wanted Glassie to add about a thousand more pages. And he definitely would have resented the title: “A Man of Misconceptions.”
Kircher was the Michael Phelps of polymathery, minus the accolades. He was, by turns, a mathematician; an Egyptologist; an astronomer; a geologist; a volcanologist; a Sinologist; a musicologist; a machinist; and the inventor of a speaking trumpet, the Aeolian harp and some say the notorious “cat piano,” which produced notes by pricking the tails of live cats. [Read the full article...]
QUEEN OF MISFORTUNE
A Lady Jane Grey Novel by Peter Carroll
A Love Story of Shakespearean Dimension!
Queen Of Misfortune is the fictional story of Lady Jane Grey as told by her beloved tutor, John Aylmer. At the time of her execution a stranger is recorded to have assisted her when, blind folded, she lost her way upon the scaffold. Was it the same strange who was also recorded to have visited her when she was imprisoned in the Tower? Little is known of this unfortunate girl who was beheaded for treason in the 16th Century. She was only 16. She is omitted from the list of monarchs but was actually queen for nine days. Author Peter Carroll, in his novel, follows John Aylmer’s close relationship with Jane as her tutor and later, as she grows up, her lover. [More...]
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