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A Far-Out And Forgotten Renaissance Man

A Man Of Misconceptions by John Glassie. (Riverhead Hardcover)

Back in the 17th century, right around the time when the ideas of great thinkers like Descartes and Newton and Hobbes began to shape the world, a Jesuit priest named Athanasius Kircher also tried to make his mark.

Kircher was something of a jack-of-all-trades. He wrote more than 30 books; he was a philosopher, an inventor, a historian, a scientist. Back in his day, everyone knew about him. But it didn't help his reputation that many of his theories and inventions just couldn't hold water.

He declared there were Egyptian roots in Chinese society, touted the existence of mermaids and said the inside of the Earth contained passageways and oceans. And so the legacy of Kircher has largely been forgotten. But author John Glassie brings back his story in his new book, A Man of Misconceptions.

"I'm a big fan of crackpots, and I think that's one of the reasons that I wrote the book," Glassie tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Thing Considered.

Born in Germany, Kircher wound up in Rome, "living the life of a Jesuit polymath with an insatiable curiosity — which he indulged in just about everything," Glassie says.


Interview Highlights

On how Kircher studied so much from his perch in Rome

"Rome was the center of the Jesuit missionary system in many respects. He was based in the Colegio Romano there. And the missionaries everywhere — from New Spain, later called Mexico, to New France, later called Canada, to China — would send him back natural specimens, reports on flora and fauna and, many times, exotic stories of strange creatures and oddities and so forth. So he put many of those things together in what became a very famous museum."

On the 'Cat Piano' allegedly displayed at Kircher's museum

"The idea would be to gather several cats, live cats, and arrange them according to what he called 'tonal magnitude,' and to bring their tails through channels that were connected to a piano keyboard. And slender, kind of prickers, would be put in the place of normal piano mallets. And when you played the piano, the cats would howl and scream in a special kind of cat harmony."

On whether Kircher contributed anything worthwhile to the world

"Yes. His encyclopedias of all these different subjects were the standards, in many cases, into the next century. His work on music was very well respected. And in fact, his articulation, they call it, of the doctrine of the affections, was apparently an influence on Bach. He also, you know, was one of the first people to describe what could be seen through a microscope. And he was, I think, probably the first to look at human blood through a microscope. And he examined blood of plague patients in Rome in 1656 and saw what he described as a multitude of invisible little worms. And he then proclaimed that plague or the disease was a living thing. There's still a debate now going about whether he should be given credit for the germ theory of disease, but because I'm a fan of him, I think that he should be given credit for that at least."

On Kircher's legacy

"I think his career and so on speaks to something. It's not a binary world, you know. It's not always easy to determine whether something is right or whether it will turn out to be ridiculous. So he's kind of a champion of the absurd, in a way. You know, people have sort of gravitated to that notion."

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Back in the 17th century, right around the time when the ideas of men like Descartes and Newton and Hobbes began to shape the world, a Jesuit priest named Athanasius Kircher also tried to make his mark.

Kircher was something of a dilettante. He wrote more than 30 books on things from Egyptology to volcanoes. He was a philosopher, an inventor, a historian, a scientist. And when he died in 1680, he was largely forgotten. And if he was mentioned, it was usually in the same sentence as crackpot. But in his day, everyone knew about him, and it's taken more than three centuries to resurrect his story. It's the subject of our book today, "A Man of Misconceptions" by John Glassie.

JOHN GLASSIE: He's like the Forrest Gump of the 17th century, in a way, just in the sense that he was sort of there for so many characteristics of moments of the period. He was born on the eve of a witch hunt. He was caught up in the turmoil of the Thirty Years' War. He was supposedly assigned to be the replacement for Kepler in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna. Then he wound up in Rome. The story is that he was in a shipwreck and ended up in Rome where he spent the next 40 years.

RAZ: And he, in fact, knew a lot of things. We're not sure how much he knew about those things but claimed to know a lot of things. He wrote 30 books ranging from hieroglyphics to volcanoes to Chinese history. How would you begin learning about those things from a perch in Rome?

GLASSIE: Rome was the center of the Jesuit missionary system in many respects. He was based in the Collegio Romano there. And the missionaries and - everywhere from New Spain, later called Mexico, to New France, later called Canada, to China, would send him back natural specimens, reports on flora and fauna and exotic stories of strange creatures and oddities and so forth. So he put many of those things together in what became a very famous museum.

RAZ: A very eccentric museum.

GLASSIE: Exactly.

RAZ: And what would you find if you went into his museum in Rome?

GLASSIE: You'd find many, many exotic, fantastic things. He had magnetic clocks there. He had, allegedly, a cat piano.

RAZ: A cat piano. This is something he invented...

GLASSIE: Well...

RAZ: ...or is said to have invented.

GLASSIE: It's unclear whether he invented it, whether he actually constructed one, but he is...

RAZ: And now, before you describe this, and with apologies, John, with apologies to cat lovers, and I am one myself - I have three - please explain what the cat piano was.

GLASSIE: The idea would be to gather several cats...

RAZ: Live cats.

GLASSIE: ...live cats, and arrange them according to what he called tonal magnitude...

RAZ: Uh-huh. OK. I'm not going to laugh. This isn't funny. Go on.

GLASSIE: ...and to bring their tails through channels that were connected to a piano keyboard. And slender, kind of prickers would be put in the place of normal piano mallets. And when you played the piano, the cats would howl and scream in a special kind of cat harmony.

RAZ: He was called, for some reason, you write, the father of Egyptology. He did write a book about hieroglyphics and about ancient Egypt. He said that there were Egyptian roots in Chinese society, which caused scholars to try to understand hieroglyphics by studying Chinese. That was...

GLASSIE: That's right. He did. He did. They went down the wrong trail because of Kircher for about a century, I think.

RAZ: He was obviously something of a crackpot. I mean, smart guy...

(LAUGHTER)

RAZ: ...right? I mean, I don't think it's unfair to call him that.

GLASSIE: No. No, I love it. And, in fact, I'm a big fan of crackpots, and I think that's one of the reasons that I, you know, I wrote the book. I like the notion of engaging in the world, you know, with this kind of optimism and intensity, energy.

RAZ: Kircher dies in his late 70s. By that point, people were not taking him seriously, right?

GLASSIE: In general, they weren't. I mean, too many of his ideas were not going to hold up to the experimental method, which was sort of coming into existence.

RAZ: Is there anything that he discovered or wrote about a research that has had a lasting impact that has changed the way we think about the world today?

GLASSIE: Yes. I mean, his encyclopedias of all these different subjects were the standards, in many cases, into the next century. His work on music was very well respected. And in fact, his articulation, they call it, of the doctrine of the affections, was apparently an influence on Bach.

He also, you know, was one of the first people to describe what could be seen through a microscope. And he was, I think, probably the first to look at human blood through a microscope. And he examined blood of plague patients in Rome in 1656 and saw what he described as a multitude of invisible little worms.

And he then proclaimed that plague or the disease was a living thing. There's still a debate now going on about whether he should be given credit for the germ theory of disease, but because I'm a fan of him, I think that he should be given credit for that, at least.

RAZ: But for a long time, I mean, it was sort of unfashionable to write about him. He was seen as this just kind of like irrelevant figure. That's changing?

GLASSIE: And I think his career and so on speaks to something. It's not a binary world, you know? It's not always easy to determine whether something is right or whether it will turn out to be ridiculous. So he's kind of a champion of the absurd, in a way. You know, people have sort of gravitated to that notion.

RAZ: That's John Glassie. His new book is called "A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change." John Glassie, thanks.

GLASSIE: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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