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The Renaissance Man Who Got It All Wrong

Dec 28, 2012
Originally published on December 28, 2012 1:03 pm



This is SCIENCE FRIDAY; I'm Ira Flatow. You've heard of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Galileo, Newton, maybe even Pascal and Hooke, all Renaissance men who, between them, innovated in painting, sculpture, physics, math, chemistry, astronomy, architecture, philosophy, the list goes on. But how about Athanasius Kircher? Yeah, have you heard of him? Not ringing - no bells are ringing?

Well, he was a contemporary of many of these greats and a priest and a scholar who studied Egyptian hieroglyphics, magnetism, philosophy, music. He studied the blood of plague victims through an early microscope. He even hiked into the smoking crater of Mount Vesuvius to pursue his study of volcanoes and magma. Maybe a little crazy like a lot of other pioneers.

Impressive résumé, right? The only problem is he got a lot of stuff wrong. Whoops. You can read about his misadventures in my next guest's new book, "A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change." Very entertaining. John Glassie is the author of "A Man of Misconceptions" and a former contributing editor at the New York Times Magazine. He joins us in our New York studios. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

JOHN GLASSIE: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Tell us about why don't - we haven't heard of this guy? He did all that stuff, we never heard of him.

GLASSIE: Well, it's a good question. Historians have become increasingly interested in him in the last couple of decades, I would say, but, you know, there wasn't a popular sort of version of his story out there. So I - that was one reason why I felt like I had to do it. I think he isn't a household name or even remember mainly because, you know, he didn't have one single achievement that he could be remembered for.

But he did play a pretty significant role in many different fields.

FLATOW: But if he was wrong in so many of them, how can he play a role in those fields?

GLASSIE: Well, there are a couple of different ways, maybe, in which that could be. One is I've begun to feel a little bit guilty about the title of my book, "A Man of Misconceptions."


GLASSIE: And I'm very fond of this fellow, and...

FLATOW: He's growing on you.

GLASSIE: Yes, absolutely. Well, after working on it for some time, you know, that's probably what happens. But, you know, he wasn't wrong about everything. He was a man of misconceptions certainly, but that's kind of a conceit that through the course of the book I begin to undermine because you realize that many of his misconceptions were misconceptions of the time, many people held them, and they're misconceptions really from our modernist point of view.

And this was just a crazy, crazy time. So it's really about a kind of perspective. It's a mindset that I was trying to sort of get into with the story of this fellow.

FLATOW: Give us a flavor of the time. What was going on around his peers and going on in the world at that time?

GLASSIE: Well, I mean, you can start off, he was born on the eve of a witch hunt, and...

FLATOW: Not a good start.


GLASSIE: In 1602, you know, and he was - you know, he was steeped in a lot of the, you know, the mystical and magical thinking of the pre-scientific era. 1602, you know, that's several years before Galileo published "Starry Messenger," you know, the - his observations of the four moons around Jupiter and so on. And he died in 1680. That was several years before Newton published the "Principia."

So this is - he lived 78 years, whatever that was. This is really the period that we now have a two-word label for, the scientific revolution. So he was steeped in these older notions, but he actually did - he adopted, he was an early adopter of technologies like the celestial tube, as they called it, or the telescope, the microscope.

And - but he was probably still too steeped in the -in sort of the older methodologies to really make too much progress in what...

FLATOW: The world was changing or just changing around him, and he couldn't keep up with it, and...

GLASSIE: He couldn't keep up with it, yeah, although he certainly tried. I mean, you know, this guy had more energy than I've ever, you know, than you can imagine. And, you know, he published something like 30 books in almost as many subjects. You mentioned a lot of them.

FLATOW: Right.

GLASSIE: And he - those books served as sort of benchmarks of learning of the time. They were encyclopedias on whatever it was: optics, even music, that kind of thing. And even though they contained many propositions that could then be proven wrong by experiment, which is by the way a pretty valuable service in a way, you know, they were important works that almost all the major figures of that time had to contend with.

FLATOW: You've likened him to a kind of Forrest Gump of the 17th century.

GLASSIE: I have, yeah. I mean, well, the thing is - the only difference is that Forrest Gump, you know, was this innocent, naïve, you know, sort of - had a kind of pure quality to his character. Kircher was a courtier, a careerist. He was not above fibbing if it suited him to get ahead in his career. But he was, in the way that Forest Gump was, kind of one or two degrees of separation away from so many kind of characteristic moments of the time and also as well as people.

So as I say, you know, born on the eve of a witch hunt, he was kind of thrown around in the turmoil of the 30 Years War. He arrived in Rome in 1633 just months after the Galileo trial. He was in Rome in 1656 for the plague, you mentioned the plague, and...

FLATOW: And he survived.

GLASSIE: He survived, yeah. Well, they actually - the entire city went - they had a fairly sophisticated sort of system in place to try and shut it down, and 15,000 people died in Rome apparently at that time. At the same time, in Naples, something like 150,000 to 250,000 people died. So Rome actually had a very sophisticated system in place.

But he did survive that, and that's when he looked at a lot of the plague victims under a microscope, which was probably the first time anybody had every looked at human blood through a microscope.

FLATOW: And what did he actually examine? Did he make an observation and a contribution after the observation?

GLASSIE: Well, he did. You know, it's not clear how sophisticated the microscope was that he was using, whether it was a compound microscope, even, and it's not clear entirely what he saw. But he claimed to have seen an innumerable number of invisible little worms, and he determined from that that plague, and that all disease, was a living thing.

And so he's been - there's a debate. I've said, you know, I don't know - it's ongoing. I don't know how active it is, you know, about whether he should be given credit for the germ theory of disease.

FLATOW: Instead of Pasteur, who came later.

GLASSIE: That's right, yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah, oh, so he saw something, didn't know what they were, but he thought that's how they - this spread from one person to another, through these little worms or something.

GLASSIE: That's right, and this actually was connected to his - he had sort of animistic kind of view of the world, and it was connected to something that he called universal sperm, this notion that there were little seed-like things, but life force, without and about, you know, most everything, kind of bizarre.

FLATOW: Talking with John Glassie, author of "A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change." Is it true that Kircher actually coined the term electromagnetism?

GLASSIE: Yes, I thought so until today, when I was checking it.


GLASSIE: And it looks like...

FLATOW: Never quite ever done with anything. I know how that is.


GLASSIE: Well no, it's - I think so, and there's a general consensus that yes, although - but as I say, I saw something today that suggests that maybe William Gilbert, you know, who wrote about magnetism, he wrote in this important work in 1601 about magnetism. But, you know, it's not, it's not the amazing coinage that we sort of think of, in a way.

Electron is the Greek word for amber, right.

FLATOW: Right.

GLASSIE: Which when you rub it, you know, against different materials or whatever, it creates static electricity. So this was, you know, just a way of describing a phenomenon that, you know, he saw was related to magnetic attraction and repulsion.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. Tell me the story about the sunflower seed clock, something that I think might be better suited to Ripley's Believe It Or Not! than the halls of science.

GLASSIE: Yes. Well, it's a great story. He came out - he arrived in France in 1633. If I go on too long, just - you'll have to just stop me.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. I love these stories. Go ahead.

GLASSIE: He arrived in France in 1633 after - sort of as a refugee from the Thirty Years' War, came into sort of - came into the fold - under the fold of some French sort of experimental philosophers, and he talked up the sunflower seed clock to them.

FLATOW: A clock made out of sunflower seeds.

GLASSIE: What it was is that the seed was supposed to be able to drive the clock. And the idea was that the - that in the same way that the sunflower, the flower itself, turns and follows the sun during the course of the day, that the seed had the same property. He actually attributed it to a kind magnetic attraction of the sun. He believed - this connects, again, to almost this notion of universal sperm that I was talking to you...

FLATOW: Right, right.

GLASSIE: ...these invisible energies, these kind of cosmic influences and attractions and repulsions. So the notion was that the seed contained - you know, was pulled by the sun to drive up a clock. The seed was embedded in a cork in a tub of water, and it was shown, in certain cases, you know, to, when he displayed it, to - no matter which way, whatever you did with the cork, it would go right back and display the accurate time.


GLASSIE: But it was really a parlor trick because there was also a magnet embedded in the cork. And so if he had enough time beforehand to set this parlor trick up, before people arrived to see it, he would figure out, relative to magnetic north, where the sun would be, and he would set it up so that it would always show the correct time.

FLATOW: Was there money on these things riding on it? Are you going to make any money from, you know, for being a charlatan in that sense?

GLASSIE: Well, I think that - it's funny, you know? I mean, I think that what he wanted to do was I think he wanted to try to convey what he actually believed the truth was about the way the universe worked, that there were, indeed, these kinds of energies. And even if he could not make a sunflower seed drive a clock, it was an analogy.

FLATOW: Yeah. Ah.

GLASSIE: This was the kind of thing that he wanted people to understand. Well, this happened to be at the time of the Galileo trial, by the way, and people kind of twigged on this as a way - that, you know, maybe there was something here. If this was true, then maybe this could actually help make Galileo's case...


GLASSIE: ...that the sun had this attractive power. And so among sort of French intellectuals, there was a bunch of correspondent - correspondence. Mersenne, now famous for his prime numbers, wrote to Descartes and talked to him about this, and Descartes responded, said, well, thank you very much for having written to me about this. I find this to be very fascinating. If it's true, it's certainly, you know, very curious and wonderful, although I don't - I'm not convinced that this is the case, though I don't hold it to be impossible.


GLASSIE: And then, in fact, even years later when Kircher published his major work on magnetism, Descartes read sort of an enhanced description of the sunflower seed clock and wrote to - I don't know if it was Constantjin or Christiaan Huygens right in my mind right now, but he had correspondence about this, and he said, you know, I heard about this sunflower seed clock several years ago.

Father, you know, Mersenne wrote to me about it. I still don't think it's possible, on and on and on. But it - and, you know, he was making it sound as if it was completely absurd, but it wasn't so absurd that he didn't...


GLASSIE: ...want to try it himself.

FLATOW: That's right.

GLASSIE: So Descartes tried this thing. It's - well, it turns out, of course, it did not work.

FLATOW: Yeah. Of course not.


FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR, talking with John Glassie, author of "A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change." Speaking of an eccentric, you write in him about how he hiked into the smoking crater of Mount Vesuvius.

GLASSIE: Indeed he did.

FLATOW: Everybody's a little nutty.

GLASSIE: Well, not to mention this is in the aftermath of a devastating Earthquake in 1638 in Southern Italy there. He had been down in Malta and on Sicily, exploring the caves, the catacombs, the grottoes, the inland seas, the underground passageways and so forth. He was beginning to develop theories about the interior of the Earth.

FLATOW: So he went down there to explore.

GLASSIE: So he went down there. There was only one way to find out.

FLATOW: To go down there and take a hike.

GLASSIE: And get some empirical evidence and go on down there.

FLATOW: Wasn't he afraid of the lava or anything that might come out of that?

GLASSIE: Well, I think he was, but, you know, look, he was a, you know, he was a crackpot, but he was a - someone who had genuine passion for knowledge. He had sort of, you know, the right idea, you know, as far as that goes. And, you know, he described - there's, you know, these great passages about - you know, that he wrote about that exploration.

You know, he said that he felt that he was, you know, facing the habitation of hell. And he describes the sulfurous odors and the, you know, the racket, the noise and rackets of the rocks falling into the, you know, the molten lava and so forth. It's fantastic.

FLATOW: So he was actually that close to the lava.

GLASSIE: Well, I don't know how close he was, frankly, but it was inside the, you know, the crater of Vesuvius, that I think, you know, he really began to develop his notion of the - you know, what the interior of the Earth was like. And, you know, these were theories that he ended up publishing, I guess, about 30 years later in a major work called "Mundus Subterraneus," you know, which means just subterranean world or underground world. And that was kind of a major work of what we call - now call geology, and he published - excuse me - he published these wonderful, sort of, schematic diagrams of the Earth with networks of fires and also ocean leading all the way down into the center of the Earth.

FLATOW: Oceans of lava?

GLASSIE: Oceans of water.

FLATOW: Of water, going down into the center of the Earth.

GLASSIE: There were this, you know, there was a symbiotic system going on down there in his mind.

FLATOW: Well, if you want to - we're run out of time, but you want to read lots more about this. I highly recommend reading John Glassie's book, "A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in the Age of Change." And that guy is - say it for me, Athanaius(ph).

GLASSIE: Athanasius.

FLATOW: See, I going to close, Athanasius Kircher.

GLASSIE: That's right.

FLATOW: Thank you for taking time to do this today.

GLASSIE: Thanks so much.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Stay with us. After the break, we're going to talk about the psychology of New Year's resolutions, why it's so hard to keep it? Stay with us. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.