Thursday, May 2, 2013

Athanasius Kircher - A Man in Search of Universal Knowledge

Athanasius Kircher
(ca. 1602 - 1680)
On May 2nd, 1601 (or 1602), German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher was born. He has published most notably in the fields of oriental studies, geology, and medicine, and has been compared to Leonardo da Vinci for his enormous range of interests. He is regarded as one of the founders of Egyptology for his (mostly fruitless) efforts in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs, wrote an encyclopedia about China, studied volcanos and fossils, was one of the very first to observe microbes thorough a microscope, and experimented with the laterna magica as a predecessor of photography.

Kircher's works were noticed and admired world wide. At the age of almost 30, he began gaining his interest for Egyptology after coming across a collection of hieroglyphs at the library of Speyer. Fascinated by these writings, he studied the Coptic language and published the first Coptic grammar book in 1636. He also explained the relationship between Coptic and other languages in later works. 'Oedipus Aegyptiacus' probably depicts Kirchers most famous and most successful work, published in the 1650's. It contains numerous artistic illustrations and interpretations of hieroglyphic texts. Even though Kircher stayed rather unsuccessful, completely understanding the Egyptian hieroglyphs, his work was very influential and highly appreciated by contemporary scientists, such as Sir Thomas Browne. Kircher was one of the fist to believe in the phonetic importance of Egyptian hieroglyphs, showing that Coptic was a development of the early Egyptian language, making him one of the founders of Egyptology.

Another major field of Kircher's interests was sinology. His encyclopedia of the Chinese Empire contained detailed cartography combined with mystic symbols and pictures controversially emphasizing certain Christian aspects in the Chinese history.

In the 1630's, Anthanasius Kircher climbed into Mount Vesuvius' crater for research, which inspired him to later publish 'Mundus Subterraneus'. The work contained geological and geographical observations and explanations, assuming that the tides were caused by an underground ocean. Also, he made several hypotheses on fossils and on the structure of Earth' center.

To the most significant contributions Kircher's in medicine belongs his research on the Plague. His methods using microscopes to observe people's blood was innovative and led to the correct assumption, the disease was caused by microorganisms. Kircher also published several works on the functionality of human body parts, always with detailed and complex illustrations.

Next to the many of Kircher's scientific contributions to society, he invented several machines, one being a very early predecessor of the movie projector and another being the attempt of building a perpetual motion object. He was active in the field of cryptography and often related to theological topics scientifically. For instance he tried to comprehend the technical standard of Noah's Arc based on the studies of the mathematician Johannes Buteo.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a lecture by Dr. Emily Teeter, talking about the Origins of Egyptian Civilization. The talk covers lots of Kircher's scientific interests and was hosted by the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute in 2011.

References and Further Reading:

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