November 2012

Mary Mann

nonfiction

A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change by John Glassie

Athanasius Kircher wanted to understand absolutely everything: magnets, optics, acoustics, music, Egyptology, history, mathematics, geology, language, and anything that had to do with China. But even more than he wanted to know everything, he wanted to be known as the man who knew everything.

Using outside sources and material from Kircher's autobiography -- the former exposing the stretched truths in the latter -- John Glassie charts in A Man of Misconceptions Kircher's rise from accident-prone youth at the dawn of the 1600s to established priest-scientist fifty years later. Despite acclaim from many of his contemporaries, his feverish desire for a lasting legacy (built largely on Biblically-supported science) could not withstand the rising tide of experiment-based modern science. Isaac Newton, the father of the modern scientific method, published The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy seven years after Kircher's death in 1680, and Kircher was all but forgotten.

Glassie treats Kircher like a wacky but harmless uncle, clearly relishing the opportunity to share some of his favorite stories about the man he refers to as a "colossal crackpot." (Glassie is not always kind, but he's honest.) Among the many theories he expounded, Kircher believed that mountains were hollow, that the origin of life was something called "universal sperm," and that mermaids existed. He was also obsessed with gadgets and parlor tricks, assembling one of Europe's finest "curiosity cabinets" (eclectic private museums), which he displayed to great popularity at the Roman College. He invented something called a "cat piano." It involved several live cats.

His sharp eye for the absurd helps Glassie make Kircher's story interesting and superbly human: his desire for fame, his eccentricities, his diverse range of interests, and his fondness for gadgets all seem quite contemporary. Glassie wisely includes text and engravings from Kircher's own books to demonstrate clearly both the absurdity of the bulk of his theories and the seriousness with which they were presented (and largely accepted). He uses many outside sources as well, however, and some of these citations seem incidental. Paraphrasing would have made the prose smoother: rare is the paragraph without quotation marks embedded somewhere.

Beyond this stylistic hiccup, Glassie tells Kircher's complex story with humor and genuine passion, using fascinating details to bring us into Kircher's world. In seventeenth century Europe, science, religion, and magic were often one and the same: illness was the result of demons; the sun was widely believed to orbit the Earth; and even the much-lauded Newton spent decades of his life researching alchemy, believing that he would someday discover how to turn mere rocks into gold. In this environment, it's little wonder that Kircher's own theories skewed to the fantastic.

Despite his many archaic beliefs, Kircher's work inspired a great many of the thinkers who have shaped our world. His detailed research of all things Chinese led Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (who once wrote Kircher a fan letter) to use the I Ching to invent what would become binary code. Bach took things from Kircher's theory of music, and Bernini worked with Kircher to design his famous fountain in Rome's Piazza Navona. Kircher's fantastical writing style inspired Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, and Umberto Eco.

He was eccentric and paranoid, and his work didn't directly change the world. Yet Kircher inadvertently gave others the tools with which to do some serious barrier breaking. His dearest wish was to leave a legacy. Over three centuries later, Glassie seems happy to have given him a new one.

A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change by John Glassie
Riverhead
ISBN: 978-1594488719
352 pages