The Forgotten Mystic Secrets Of Athanasius Kircher

Writers No One Reads on the incredible genius of Athanasius Kircher, a sort of bizarro-da-Vinci who created jaw-dropping inventions and surreal, lavishly illustrated science books covering topics such as the people who live inside the earth:

Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) [was] a Jesuit priest and polymath who wrote more than thirty big books on everything from optics, acoustics, linguistics, and mathematics to cryptology, Egyptology, numerology, and Sinology.

Kircher wasn’t just a writer. He was an inventor of speaking statues, eavesdropping devices, and musical machines. (He is alleged to have invented an instrument called the cat piano.) He was the curator of an early modern museum — a cabinet of curiosities featuring the tailbones of a mermaid and a brick from the Tower of Babel — at the Jesuit college in Rome. He pursued his interest in geological matters by climbing down inside the smoking crater of Mount Vesuvius. And he was perhaps the first to use a microscope to examine human blood.

The main reason no one reads him today is that he wrote everything, something like seven million words, in Latin. English translations are few and far between. Another important reason: a general sense that so much of what he wrote was wrong. It is true that many of Kircher’s ideas — secret knots of cosmic influence, universal sperm, the hollowness of mountains — didn’t stand the test of time. Kircher was steeped, like all of his contemporaries, in the magic and superstition of the pre-scientific period. But he was also brilliant.

Kircher’s poetical tendencies found their fullest expression in his erroneous “translations” of Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions. Oedipus Aegyptiacus (Egyptian Oedipus), his 2,000-page tome on the subject, was published in the early 1650s after two decades of work.

It was during his own lifetime that Kircher began to develop his reputation as an author who couldn’t always be trusted. Descartes, for example, was vexed by Kircher’s claim in Magnes, sive de Arte Magnetica (The Magnet, or the Art of Magnetics) of 1641 that a sunflower seed could drive a clock — based on its innate sensitivity to the magnetic attraction of the Sun. The notion was absurd, but not so absurd that that Descartes didn’t try it himself. “I had enough free time to do the experiment,” he wrote in a letter, “but it didn’t work.”