An introduction to an undeservedly obscure polymath of the scientific revolution.
Justly (if anachronistically, as the term wasn’t coined until the 19th century) dubbing Kircher (1602-1680) in his time “the most famous scientist in all of Europe,” Peters devotes most of this profile just to laying out the immense range of his interests and exploits. Along with writings on music, geology, mathematics, travel, and more, he built microscopes and other devices, demonstrated a megaphone with a 5-mile range, and had himself winched down into a live volcano. Being also a showman (“closer to P.T. Barnum than to Einstein”), he also created in Rome a popular museum of “bizarre and fantastical objects” including magnetic clocks and mermaid bones, ancient obelisks, statues that could talk or vomit, and many other marvels. Reading this book is like a walk through that museum, and if certain passages of the hair-fine text, being printed on low-contrast color blocks, require some squinting, Bikadoroff’s portraits of Kircher and other historical figures (all white) over antique landscapes and images add proper notes of wonder as well as period flavor. Many of Kircher’s works and notions were fanciful or, like that talking statue, outright hoaxes, but others have turned out to be valuable contributions; both get equal play, both throughout and in a final section dubbed “Hits and Misses.”
A colorful figure in the history of science whose “misses” are as entertaining and instructive as his “hits.” (timeline, map, lists of sources and further reading) (Biography. 10-13)