A 17th-Century genius, a quack, or perhaps both

From The New York Times:

ManIn 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.

In “A Man of Misconceptions,” the first general-interest biography of Kircher, Mr. Glassie draws on three decades of renewed scholarly interest in his work to deliver a stirring if sometimes backhanded defense. So what if his works, “in number, bulk and uselessness are not surpassed in the whole field of learning,“ as one early-20th-century scholar put it? There’s something to be said, Mr. Glassie writes, merely “for having been a source of so many ideas — right, wrong, half right, half-baked, ridiculous, beautiful and all-encompassing.”

More here.