A Man of Misconceptions
The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change
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.
Apologetic Forerunner to This Kircherian Study
1. Incapable of Resisting the Force
2. Inevitable Obstacles
3. A Source of Great Fear
4. Scenic Proceedings
5. Chief Inciter of Action
6. Beautiful Reports
7. Secret Exotic Matters
8. Habitation of Hell
9. The Magnet
10. An Innumerable Multitude of Catoptric Cats
11. Four Rivers
12. Egyptian Oedipus
13. The Admiration of the Ignorant
14. Little Worms
15. Philosophical Transactions
16. Underground World
19. Not As It Was
20. Immune and Exempt
22. Closest of All to the Truth
23. The Strangest Development
“Like his subject, Athanasius Kircher, writer John Glassie has the rare gift of authentic quirkiness. A Man of Misconceptions leaves you contemplating the big questions, delightedly scratching your head, and laughing—all at the same time.”
—Mark Kurlansky, author of Cod and Salt
“I’ve been waiting my entire adult life for someone to write a popular biography of the loopy, ingenious scholar-priest Athanasius Kircher, and John Glassie has delivered marvelously. A man of insatiable curiosity and staggeringly diverse intellectual passions, Kircher may have been the greatest polymath of all time—or at least the most eccentric.”
—Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein
“Glassie brings the ultimate mad professor Athanasius Kircher vividly to life, revealing him to be a kind of cross between Leonardo da Vinci and Mr. Bean. A most entertaining foray into the history of science.”
—Ross King, author of Brunelleschi’s Dome
“A marvelous insight into the mind of one of the world’s most eccentric thinkers. Glassie brings Kircher to life—and what a life it is!”
—Adrian Tinniswood, author of The Verneys and Pirates of Barbary
“What a brilliant and revealing book about a fascinating character, one I had no previous knowledge about. Glassie’s genius is to make Kircher and his era come alive for us centuries later in such a way that I can hear and touch him.”
— Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone
"This fascinating biography of the Renaissance polymath Athanasius Kircher explores the birth of modern science through the life of one of the last pre-modern geniuses."
—The New Yorker
“[A] brisk new biography...stirring…with impressive verve and un-Kircherian concision.”
– The New York Times
“In his quirky biography of Athanasius Kircher … Mr. Glassie uses Kircher as something of a comic foil to show how erroneous ideas about investigating nature helped lead to modern science... [A] spirited telling."
—The Wall Street Journal
“You will come away from Glassie's book ... feeling inspired by the incredible inventive spirit of the man behind such creations as the ‘cat piano’ and ‘the speaking trumpet’ — and at the same time a bit sad that such characters as Kircher have been left mostly forgotten in the winds of time. You'll feel more knowledgeable about everything because of this book.”
— The Atlantic Wire
“Hooh boy! ... Why do I love Kircher so much? Chalk it up to the man’s passion for scientific inquiry, and his boundless curiosity about how the world works.”
— Scientific American
“Glassie’s biography ... brings into stark relief the pressures of the intellectual climate he lived in ... a time when witch trials flourished, prevailing logic said bees spontaneously generated from dung, and when it was widely believed that something called the vegetable lamb plant of Tartary produced actual sheep as its fruit.”
— The Daily Beast
"In the course of his life, Kircher opined, almost invariably incorrectly, about the nature of light, magnetism, and the geography of the earth…Glassie has a genuine affection for Kircher despite the latter's laughably bizarre theories and self-aggrandizing egotism. In fact, the author's affection humanizes Kircher, making him oddly credible."
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“An entertaining reminder that skepticism can be good.”
“excellent…An entertaining and enlightening biography of a man who has been, probably unfairly, almost entirely left out of the history of science.”
"His sharp eye for the absurd helps Glassie make Kircher's story interesting and superbly human.... Glassie tells Kircher's complex story with humor and genuine passion, using fascinating details to bring us into Kircher's world. "
"What makes A Man of Misconceptions fascinating is how it sets the intellectual scene of the 17th century ... and it's that clarity of scene that helps make sense of a contradictory character."
—Mental Floss Magazine
"Fun and magisterial ... A simply fascinating book about a fascinating figure."
— Baltimore City Paper
— NPR's "Science Friday"
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