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

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A Scientific American Best Science Book of 2012
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The ?fascinating? (The New Yorker) story of Athanasius Kircher, the eccentric scholar-inventor who was either a great genius or a crackpot . . . or a bit of both.

The interests of Athanasius Kircher, the legendary seventeenth-century ...

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

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Overview

A Scientific American Best Science Book of 2012
An Atlantic Wire Best Book of 2012
A New York Times Book Review “Editor's Choice”

The “fascinating” (The New Yorker) story of Athanasius Kircher, the eccentric scholar-inventor who was either a great genius or a crackpot . . . or a bit of both.

The interests of Athanasius Kircher, the legendary seventeenth-century priest-scientist, knew no bounds. From optics to music to magnetism to medicine, he offered up inventions and theories for everything, and they made him famous across Europe. His celebrated museum in Rome featured magic lanterns, speaking statues, the tail of a mermaid, and a brick from the Tower of Babel. Holy Roman Emperors were his patrons, popes were his friends, and in his spare time he collaborated with the Baroque master Bernini.

But Kircher lived during an era of radical transformation, in which the old approach to knowledge—what he called the “art of knowing”— was giving way to the scientific method and modern thought. A Man of Misconceptions traces the rise, success, and eventual fall of this fascinating character as he attempted to come to terms with a changing world.

With humor and insight, John Glassie returns Kircher to his rightful place as one of history’s most unforgettable figures.
 

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Athanasius Kircher (c.1601-1680) was not your average scientist or, at least, we hope that he wasn't. With a curiosity that knew no bounds, this hard-working German Jesuit wrote about topics ranging from mermaids to magnetism; from fossils to the spread of plagues. Although he has been described as "the first scholar with a global reputation" and "a one-man intellectual clearing house," Kircher was wrong about almost everything he touched. For example, his translations of Egyptian hieroglyphics were totally inaccurate. Nevertheless, as John Glassie's vivid biography demonstrates, this energetic pre-Enlightenment thinker opened scientific doors even though he habitually took the wrong path after he entered. A stimulating view of a man once lauded by kings, aristocrats, and popes.

The New York Times
In 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…Mr. Glassie draws on three decades of renewed scholarly interest in his work to deliver a stirring if sometimes backhanded defense…And Mr. Glassie says it, with impressive verve and un-Kircherian concision, though the sheer sprawl of the man's mostly untranslated output…thwarts any hope of a clean narrative arc.
—Jennifer Schuessler
Library Journal
A former contributing editor to the New York Times Magazine, Glassie tells the story of Athanasius Kircher, a 17th-century scientist much admired in his day for discoveries that have since proven to be, politely put, half-cocked. Magnetism is not the force driving the universe, his translations of Egyptian hieroglyphics were all wrong, and what's this about his proudly displaying a mermaid's tailbone? An entertaining reminder that skepticism can be good.
Kirkus Reviews
Biography of 17th-century Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher. In his introduction, former New York Times Magazine contributing editor Glassie (Bicycles Locked to Poles, 2005) begins by describing the now-forgotten polymath as nothing less than "a champion of wonder, a man of awe-inspiring erudition and inventiveness, who...helped advance the cause of humankind." Born in what is now central Germany in 1602, Kircher entered the Jesuit order as a seminarian, teaching mathematics, philosophy and other subjects, before eventually becoming ordained as a priest. He wrote more than 30 books on Egyptian hieroglyphics, volcanoes, optics, Chinese history and more. However, even by the standards of his time, Kircher was often completely wrong, and his scientific books were sometimes "valued more for the entertainment than the information it provided." This did not stop his books from being "read, if not always respected, by the smartest minds of the time." Kircher and his work enjoyed a modicum of fame during his lifetime, but even before his death, his reputation was already in decline. Glassie does his best to place his subject in the larger context of the age, but as the book soldiers on, it becomes increasingly difficult to see why Kircher warrants a full biography. Links to his contemporaries often feel tacked-on, such as the description of Kircher's relationship with Queen Christina of Sweden. In the case of Sir Isaac Newton, these links are stretched extremely thin, as Glassie claims that "[t]here is no way to know if Newton read Kircher, but it's very likely that he did." A competently written but nonessential biography.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594488719
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 11/8/2012
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 5.92 (w) x 8.32 (h) x 1.12 (d)

Meet the Author

John Glassie, a former contributing editor to The New York Times Magazine, has written for The Believer, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Paris Review DailySalon, and Wired. He is the author of the photo book Bicycles Locked to Poles and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 25, 2013

    Fascinating  read. 

    Fascinating  read. 

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 2, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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