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Saturday, January 12, 2013

Ingenious Chutzpah

Thanks to Jad Abumrad's review of a new biography by John Glassie (A Man Of Misconceptions) in this week's NYT Book Review I got to know one of history’s more bizarre and largely forgotten thinkers, the 17th-century Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher. 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. He was a master of optical illusions, a cryptographer, an early proponent of a universal symbolic language and arguably the first person to discover the germ theory of disease, possibly even the first person to ever use a microscope. To boot, he published over 30 “seat cushion size” tomes on nearly every topic under the sun and established what must have been the coolest museum in 17th-century Europe at the Collegio Romano, famous for a Christ figurine that could “walk” on water, as well as other wonders of “natural magic.” Subsequent generations of scholars have pegged Kircher as a Grade A charlatan. But you have to admire his sheer chutzpah. Who but Kircher would publish an enormous illustrated guide to China (arguing that the Chinese are secretly Christian) without ever setting foot in China? And you have to give him style points for titling a 916-page treatise “The Magnet; Or, The Art of Magnetics, in Three Parts, in Which the Universal Nature of the Magnet as Well as Its Use in All Arts and Sciences Is Explained by a New Method: In Addition, Here Are Revealed Through All Kinds of Physical, Medical, Chemical, and Mathematical Experiments Many Hitherto Unknown Secrets of Nature From the Powers and Prodigious Effects of Magnetic as Well as Other Concealed Motions of Nature in the Elements, Stones, Plants, Animals, and Elucescent Things.”

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