Friday, July 31, 2009

Athanasius Kircher: Patron of Polymathematical Nerds

On this feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, I exhort all of you to read up on Athanasius Kircher, SJ, one of the greatest polymaths of the Jesuit order (and the 17th century, for that matter).

I first discovered Kircher through a contemporary polymath, Umberto Eco, who treats him in his excellent little volume Serendipities: Language and Lunacy. In his quest to translate the hieroglyphics on Roman obelisks, Kircher became an example of a brilliant man whose errors led to real discoveries:

"When Kircher set out to decipher hieroglyphs in the seventeenth century, there was no Rosetta stone to guide him. This explains his double mistake, namely, believing that hieroglyphs had only symbolic meaning and the absolutely fanciful way in which he identified their meaning . . . Kircher poured elements of his own fantasy into these reconstructions, frequently reportraying the stylized hieroglyphs in curvaceous baroque forms . . . in the third volume of the Oedypus there is long analysis of a cartouche that appears on the Lateran obelisk, where Kircher read a long argument concerning the necessity of attracting the benefits of divine Osiris and the Nile by means of sacred ceremonies activating the Chain of Genies, tied to the signs of the zodiac. Egyptologists today read it as simply the name of the pharaoh Apries. Kircher was then wildly wrong. Still, notwithstanding his eventual failure, he is the father of Egyptology, though in the same way as Ptolemy is the father of astronomy: in spite of the fact that his main hypothesis was mistaken. By following a false hypothesis he collected real archeological material, and Champollion (more than one hundred fifty years later), lacking an opportunity for direct observation, used Kircher's reconstructions for his study of the obelisk standing in Rome's Piazza Navona."

(Umberto Eco, Serendipities, 61, 62-63)

In addition to founding Egyptology, Kircher also contributed to Linguistics, Physics, Mathematics, Music, Engineering and many other disciplines, though some of his theories (like the composition of the "subterranean world") have since been rejected. Kircher was also a pioneer in the study of electromagnetism.

More information on Kircher can be found at the Catholic Encyclopedia and this fun fan site.

Here are Kircher's obelisks, his cosmology, one of his inventions, and his subterranean earth:

Athanasius Kircher, ora pro nobis qui scientiae studemus.
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