Athanasius Kircher – was Jesuit priest and scholar who published a large number of substantial books on a very wide variety of subjects, such as Egyptology, geology, and music theory. Sometimes called the last Renaissance man, his vast interests and prodigious activity in disseminating knowledge are compared to Leonardo Da Vinci’s and Roger Boscovich‘s. It may or may not be true, but Kircher is credited for a
Born on May 2, 1601, in Geisa, Buchonia, near Fulda, currently Hesse, Germany. His father was a teacher and lecturer who had studied religion and philosophy.
The chaos of the Thirty Years’ War, which tore Germany apart along religious lines, left its mark on the rest of Kircher’s education.
He had to flee Paderborn where he studied religion, philosophy, and theology, yet he never stopped learning. Kircher continued his studies of philosophy, science, and classical languages.
He learned to speak Hebrew and Syriac on his way to mastery of some ten languages, possibly including Chinese.
Cat Organ: Hypothetical Musical Instrument
The cat organ was first described by Athanasius Kircher, therefore many credit him as an inventor. In his work Musurgia Universalis, its use is described to reduce the melancholy of princes by moving them to laughter.
In these publications, Kircher laid out his musical theories and philosophies, such as the universe being proportional to the harmony of music.
But there are more versions of this story. According to German physician Johann Christian Reil (1759-1813), the purpose was to treat patients who had lost the ability to focus their attention.
The cat organ consists of a line of cats fixed in place with their tails stretched out underneath a keyboard, so that they cry out in pain and that would inevitably capture their attention and they would be cured.
Rest assured, there is no official record of a cat organ actually being built.
However, in this modern time, cat organ did make Prince laughter in 2010.
This time, cat organ is made of toy cats and played
Over the Rainbow with recorded cat voice. It sure have raised Prince’s spirit without hurting any cats.
Pioneer of Deciphering Hieroglyphics
Kircher had been the first to suggest that modern Coptic was a degenerate form of the language found in the Egyptian demotic script, and he had correctly suggested the phonetic value of one hieroglyph – that of mu the Coptic word for water.
Modern Egyptology reveals that ancient obelisks were memorials whose inscriptions record the identity of the kings who built them and the gods to whom they were dedicated. The data which Kircher collected were consulted by him.
In 1824, Champollion published a Précis (summary) in which he detailed the decipherment of the hieroglyphic script demonstrating the values of the phonetic and ideographic signs.
Kircher studied volcanoes owing to his passion for rocks and eruptions. He was also puzzled by fossils.
On a visit to southern Italy in 1638, Kircher was investigating volcanic phenomena including Etna, Stromboli, and Vesuvius. He experienced a minor earthquake caused by activity nearby of Vesuvius, which sparked his curiosity.
Kircher was lowered into the crater of Vesuvius, then on the brink of eruption, in order to examine its interior.
This one thing shows his boldly experimental mindset. He was also intrigued by the subterranean rumbling which he heard at the Strait of Messina.
Kircher’s geological and geographical investigations culminated in his Mundus Subterraneus of 1664, in which he suggested that the tides were caused by water moving to and from a subterranean ocean.
Kircher took a notably modern approach to the study of diseases, as early as 1646 using a microscope to investigate the blood of plague victims.
In his Scrutinium Pestis of 1658, he described microscopic
worms in plague victims which he suspected caused the disease that killed millions of people in Europe during the 17th century. The conclusion was correct.
Kircher concluded that the disease was caused by microorganisms.
He also proposed hygienic measures to prevent the spread of disease, such as isolation, quarantine, burning clothes worn by the infected and wearing face masks to prevent the inhalation of germs.
Kircher was sent the Voynich Manuscript in 1666 by Johannes Marcus Marci, who he once studied under Kircher, in the hope of his master being able to decipher it.
The manuscript remained in the Collegio Romano until Victor Emmanuel II of Italy annexed the Papal States in 1870, though scepticism as to the authenticity of the story and of the origin of the manuscript itself exists.
In his Polygraphia nova (1663), Kircher proposed an artificial universal language.
In 2014, Stephen Bax, a professor of applied linguistics at the University of Bedfordshire in England, says he’s deciphered 14 characters of the script and can read a handful of items in the Voynich text, such as the words for coriander, hellebore and juniper next to drawings of the plants.
He says he’s also picked out the word for Taurus written beside an illustration of the Pleiades, a star cluster in the constellation Taurus.
Kircher embodied the contradictions of a moment when recognizably modern ways of thinking about the past had become available, yet older and conflicting models remained appealing and, to many, persuasive.
Beyond being right or wrong, his undying obsession-like desire for knowledge opened the many doors for others to ask thousand questions about the world.
Perhaps he can be considered as the pre-modern root of post-modern thinking. The ever-curious mind keep stimulating posterity like us.
Also published on Medium.