Nerd. Geek. Poindexter. The classmate with the taped-together glasses, pocket protector and bad haircut; the subway passenger with the abstracted gaze and “The Very Best of the Feynman Lectures” playing on her iPod; the professor with chalk dust on his coat, mismatched socks and a Nobel in his future. The image of the kooky, bedraggled scientist — wide-eyed Einstein with his mad corona of white hair, sticking out his tongue — is so ingrained in the collective imagination that it’s come to resemble a veritable cartoon.
In Philip Ball’s deeply weird and wonderful new book, “The Devil’s Doctor,” the man who might well be the prototype for that familiar mad-scientist figure — the 16th century alchemist and epic wanderer Paracelsus — neatly escapes the caricaturist’s frame and emerges exuberantly and combatively alive. Hardly a hagiography, the book (subtitled, enticingly, “Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science”) rescues from obscurity a man who, Ball argues, was a flesh-and-blood hinge between the medieval and the modern universe.
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