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

John Glassie
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Product details

  • Paperback: 335 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books; Reprint edition (5 Nov 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594631891
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594631894
  • Product Dimensions: 20.8 x 13.7 x 2.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,581,376 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Mad and wonderful 18 Dec 2012
By Charlie
Format:Hardcover
If you want to know how volcanoes work, the obvious solution is to get yourself lowered into a semi-active crater... Kircher was a Jesuit priest who managed to be wrong about almost everything (arguing for wonderful concepts such as 'Universal Sperm' and the interaction of tides and magma in a model inspired by theories of the circulation of the blood), and also something of a fraud - while also contriving to be genuinely brilliant and oddly admirable. He seems to have spent most of his early life escaping from the various massacres of the 30 Years War, but in the occasional intervals between scrambling over frozen rivers, he became proficient in dozens of tongues and literatures, wrote a mad-but-brilliant introduction to musical theory, invented a device allowing translation between five major languages, observed the blood of plague victims under a microscope of his own construction, and helped, if only accidentally, to formalise our knowledge of alchemical and occult thought. He also found time to invent what would later be known as science fiction, although devising a cat piano may not have been his most brilliant idea.
This is a highly entertaining account of Kircher's life and thought; it would be easy to lapse into mere mockery, but the author avoids the temptation, especially in a rather beautifully written final chapter. This is well-informed, informative and lucid. I'd recommend it to anyone with an interest in the history of science and scientific thought - but then, as Kircher seems to have had an influence on 'Paradise Lost' (and Jules Verne, and Blavatsky, and Yeats), I'd recommend it to students of literature, too. Enjoy!
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Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars  36 reviews
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A well done look into the life of a forgotten polymath 10 Oct 2012
By Michael J. Edelman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
The 17th Century was a time of tremendous upheaval. The Church was under attack from Protestant rebels who challenged the authority of Rome and the very nature of God. The old world of scholasticism, in which the world of the Bible and the Ancient Philosophers was absolute was being challenged by the new science of observation. Natural philosophers and mathematicians were creating a new way of seeing the world. It was also a time of superstition, by today's standards, during which men and women were burned alive for the crimes of witchcraft and heresy. It was also a time, perhaps the last time in modern history, during which a single man might aspire to understand all of science, and to contribute to every branch. Scientists like Newton, Leibniz, Descartes, Fermat, Hook, Boyle and Galileo were such men, and to their names we can add another, less well known, who nonetheless contributed significantly to the growing body of knowledge. His name was Athanasius Kircher,

Kircher was by all accounts, possessed of a singularly brilliant mind, as well as a fierce devotion to faith. He made significant contributions to a wide range of intellectual pursuits, perhaps rivaling da Vinci in that regard. Kircher was an early user of van Leeuwenhoek's microscope, and probably the first to propose that diseases like the Plague were carried by by microorganisms. He studied geology, including vulcanology, and theorized about the nature of fossils, contending, contrary to the accepted wisdom of the time, that they were simply the remains of organisms that had lived in earlier times. He taught mathematics, experimented with pyrotechnics, and is credited with the invention of several devices, including magnetic clock and, possibly, the megaphone. He was fascinated by ancient Egypt, and taught himself Coptic, and correctly connected it to modern Egyptian. He had similar fascination with the ancient history of China, and published a dissertation on Chinese history and culture, one of forty books he was known to have authored. He was also fascinated by the occult, and

Like many of his day, Kircher also believed in a number of theories, histories, and forces we no longer accept today, like spontaneous generation. Unlike many of his better known contemporaries, he was not adverse to creating theories out of very little, like his belief that there was a connection between ancient China and Egypt, and the existence of ancient Christian communities in China. Nonetheless, he was greatly respected for most of his life, and celebrated across Europe as a great scholar- something that helped save his life more than once. Towards the end of the 17thC his reputation began to fade, as other great minds contributed knowledge far beyond Kircher's understanding to mathematics and physics, and by the 20thC his name was mostly forgotten.

But then, late on the 20thC, Kircher was rediscovered by those who appreciated him not so much as a great scientist and scholar but as a fascinating historical character. The publication of Athanasius Kircher: A Renaissance Man and the Quest for Lost Knowledge in 1979 introduced his name to many. There have been several books on Kircher since, including Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything and Godwin's 2009 Athanasius Kircher?s Theatre of the World: The Life and Work of the Last Man to Search for Universal Knowledge, probably the best single reference on the life of the man.

The volume under review, John Glassie's "A Man of Misconceptions," aims at presenting a full picture of Kircher the man for the popular reader. There's a lot here on those with whom Kircher communicated with and who lived during his time,along with a fair bit of speculation as to his thoughts and those of his contemporaries. Glassie is aided greatly in his reconstructions by the autobiographical writing of Kircher himself, who was not shy about explaining his reasons for his actions, or blowing his own horn, for that matter. The result is a very entertaining read, as well as a fascinating glimpse into a time when the very nature of knowledge and belief was undergoing one of the greatest upheavals in modern history. Does it add anything of consequence to Godwin's book? Probably not, but if you haven't read any of the previous works on Kircher, this book is an excellent place to start.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A significant contribution 21 Oct 2012
By Trudie Barreras - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Glassie's book is a marvelous melding of biography, historical and philosophical critique, and human insight. The dawn of the "Scientific Era", "Age of Enlightenment", or "Renaissance", depending on the terminology one chooses, is of course an unbelievably fertile field for each of these endeavors.

Anyone who has any interest in the way in which logical thought and scientific investigation finally began to break free of mythology and superstition will find this book both amusing and instructive. The subject, Jesuit priest and prolific author Athanasius Kircher, emerges as a person very much in the tradition typified by Leonardo Da Vinci: a man of extremely diverse and wide-ranging interests. Even the things Kircher "got wrong" often opened the way to subsequent developments and break-throughs.

For me, a significant point that was focused by this book is the way the intellectual discipline fostered by the Jesuit training Kircher received was pivotal in broadening and preparing his mind to empower his significant synthesis of spiritual and material reality. I have observed that apparently this sort of preparation has permitted later priest-scientists, such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, to bridge the gap between these two perspectives and has continued to encourage a less arrogant and doctrinaire investigation of reality.

I was especially delighted by comments made by the author in his fianl chapter, including his assertion that:

"There's something to be said for (Kircher's) effort to know everything and to share everything he knew, for asking a thousand questions about the world around him, and for getting so many others to ask questions about his answers; for stimulating, as well as confounding and inadvertently amusing, so many minds; for having been a source of so many ideas - right, wrong, half right, half-baked, ridiculous, beautiful and all-encompassing."

For me, the greatest joy does indeed result from the motion of a spirit of inquiry that is non-judgmental and not doctrinaire. Certainly Athanasius Kircher, as John Glassie depicts him, was susceptible to the common human failing of investing too much emotional currency in his own pet theories, but at the same time his extremely wide-ranging investigation and prolific writing obviously opened many doors that others could subsequently enter. This is in itself a significant contribution, as is John Glassie's delightful book.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars No misconceptions about Kircher here 2 Mar 2013
By Harry - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This is the best single book available on Athanasius Kircher, one of the most interesting figures in the history of science. Kircher has been the focus of many scholarly books and articles, but Glassie presents something new, a coherent portrait of Kircher as a scholar and thinker in the seventeenth-century world of the Counter Reformation that is intelligible to the lay reader but also does justice to his subject. His style is lively, and the book reads quite well. I would like to think that I know something about Kircher, but I learned much from this book.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Rediscovering a little-known and minor (but fascinating) historical figure 16 Mar 2013
By William Merrill - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
The subject of this biography, 17th Century scientist and eccentric Athanasius Kircher, was a younger contemporary of Galileo's, and his later life overlapped Isaac Newton's. Kircher's life had many parallels to the two scientific greats, most aimed at the pursuit of knowledge, yet he never achieved nearly the levels of fame and glory of those men. Why? Because Kircher regularly embraced later-disproven (and often downright goofy by modern standards) explanations for a myriad of phenomena such as snake bites, music, hieroglyphics, magnetism, and celestial motion. In John Glassie's generally engrossing biography of Kircher, he partially redeems the reputation of a man who was both revered and ridiculed in own lifetime, but then somewhat lost to history as his theories mostly got debunked. It turns out that Kircher did break ground in a few areas he is not widely credited for, and he did have some degree of influence on those who came after him. As the story unfolds, Glassie deftly places Kircher's studies and experiments in the context of common beliefs at the time, while simultaneously revealing the quirky and egotistical personality of the man. Kircher lived an interesting life, and this biography kept my attention pretty well from beginning to end. Occasionally it started to feel a little too much like a history textbook, but fortunately those times were much less common than the fascinating and frequently funny "discoveries" and achievements of Athanasius Kircher.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A forgotten man who tried to know everything during the 17th century 2 Jan 2013
By Wayne Klein - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
It's difficult being out of step with your time particularly if your accomplishments are swept aside by the Rationalists. 17th century Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kricher was a fascinating mix of brilliance and crackpot. Kricher was something of a polymath; like Da Vinci, he dabbled in all the different types of science writing a variety of books on a number of subjects from a review of Egyptian hieroglyphics to the cause of earthquakes. Kircher could be seen as the Carl Sagan of his time popularizing science if not for the fact that he was wrong so often. With the rise of Rationalism, Kircher's work was largely forgotten and Descartes described Kircher as ""more quacksalver than savant".

The strength of John Glassie's biography is the author's enthusiasm and his ability to capture details of 17th century life.

Glassie notes, for example, that Kircher was one of the earliest people to observe microorganisms and made a link between them and plague even going to far as to suggest a means to prevent the spread of plague including quarantine, the use of face masks and destroying the clothes of the deceased.

Kircher's translation of Egyptian hieroglyphics was completely wrong but he did correctly link hieroglyphics to the ancient Coptic languages. Kircher built a magnetic clock, an early megaphone and wrote extensively on early magic lanterns, music, geology and other completely unrelated disciplines. His most notable accomplishment was probably the fact that he could make a living from all the books he wrote.

Although largely forgotten, interest has grown in Kircher among scholars within the thirty years and Glassie's book provides a fascinating window to view Kircher, his accomplishments and the world of the 17th century.
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