Here are a few brief excerpts from A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change, by John Glassie, published by Riverhead Books. Reprinted with permission.
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.
Sometime in the early 1670s an old Jesuit priest named Athanasius Kircher began to write a remarkable account of his early life. It told how, by virtue of divine intervention and his own bright mind, he'd come out of nowhere (a small town in the forested region of what is now central Germany) and survived stampeding horses, a painful hernia, and the armies of an insane bishop, among other things, to take his place as one of the intellectual celebrities of the seventeenth century.
As a general rule Kircher never ruined a good story with facts.... but the main story he told was true.
A 17TH CENTURY LEONARDO DA VINCI?
This was the kind of man who pursued his interest in geological matters by lowering himself down into the smoking crater of Mount Vesuvius. He spent decades trying to decipher the hieroglyphic texts of ancient Egypt because he believed, along with many others, that they contained mystical wisdom passed down from the time of Adam. He examined all aspects of music and acoustics, and experimented with an algorithmic approach to songwriting. He was among the first to publish a description of what could be seen through a microscope.
Kircher was so prolific and so ingenious that he might have been remembered as a kind of seventeenth-century Leonardo. The problem was that he got so many things wrong...
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