Thursday, May 30, 2013

Citizen Science Genius and Renaissance Fool - The Athanasius Kircher Story

The tale of Athenasius Kircher is a fascinating one.  Born in 1602 in the Austro-Hungarian town of Geisa, he was a Catholic priest in a time when religious tensions were flaring and Europe was still reeling as the wars of Reformation began.  He rose from a humble son of a local magistrate to a highly-renowned expert on every scientific topic imaginable.  This was also the beginning of the Renaissance with knowledge being rediscovered all across the Continent. 

Kircher was a Jesuit priest in the thick of it, publishing approximately 40 books on numerous topics as a master of them all.  Sadly we was often as wildly incorrect as he was eerily prescient.  Some call him the Last Great Polymath while others call him a complete kook.  To author John Glassie he is something in between, as told "A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change."

As a Jesuit since the ago of ten when he first entered a Jesuit school, he was taught that "A greater understanding of the physical cosmos made for a greater appreciation of God's beautiful, complex creation, and a greater love for God, especially since, as the long-held belief went, everything in the earthly realm was connected through a giant chain of being-- through graduated correspondences and affinities -- to the celestial realm above." This kept him in good graces with the Pope and many private benefactors wishing to promote new discoveries...including the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III.

Through his insatiable curiosity for all things scientific and with the blessing of his superiors in the Jesuit order, Kirhcer spent much of his time investigating new phenomena and writing on a huge variety of topics.  Some described the state of science as it was currnetly known.  Some broached into new realms that the Church may not have been comfortable with.  And others may have been compelte flights of fancy.

One of his long-passions was magnetism.  In fact "Kircher wrote his first book manuscript in Wiirzburg, although at only sixty-three pages Ars Magnesia (The Magnetic Art) was more like a pamphlet, and since modern scholars see it as "highly derivative" of [previous works] on the subject, perhaps it wasn't entirely his".  Given all the controversy of the Copernican idea of an Earth revolving around the sun, in this book "Kircher steered clear of ... heliocentric ideas but echoed his views on magnetic attraction, describing it as 'primary and radical vigor.'"  Remember, this was in an age long before Newton and the concept of gravity. So while Kircher get's credit for recognizing certain aspects of modern science in the heliocentric model, he misfires greatly when describing it's cause from the Earth's magnetic attraction to the Sun.  This theme will play out his entire life.

We also see this in some of his works in the field of medicine.  In one book he dove deeply into the origin of life and became a strong proponent of "spontaneous generation", the long defunct idea that life could begin from inanimate materials.  But he was one of the first to notice the effects of microscopic organisms on rotting food (crude, early microscopes were just being invented).  As Glassie states in his book:
A medical historian writing in 1932 described Kircher's examination as "a farrago of nonsensical speculation by man possessed of neither scientific acumen nor medical instinct.'  But two years before, another historian determined from it that Kircher was "undoubtedly the first to state in explicit terms the doctrine of 'contagium vivum' as the cause of infectious disease" -in other words, that Kircher discovered microorganisms and was the first to propose the germ theory of contagion. If that's true, however, then his articulation of germ theory was predicated on notions (spontaneous generation, animism) that no modern scientist would be caught dead advancing. Besides, the concept of universal seeds went back to the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras, and the idea that disease is living turns out to be both ancient and mystical.

Later in life he also described much about the Earth and Geology.  On the one hand he was the first to describe ocean-wide currents and the formation of igneous rock.  He also described the causes of earthquakes and volcanoes coming from an incredibly hot inner Earth. But he also claimed to discover Atlantis.   As described by Glassie:
ln Kircher's view, volcanoes, however awful and awe-inspiring, 'are nothing but the vent-holes, or breath-pipes of Nature' Earthquakes are merely the 'proper effects of subterrestrial cumbustions' that are sure to go on constantly. The 'prodigious volcanoes and the vomiting mountains visible in the external surface of the earth I do sufficiently demonstrate it to be full of invisible and underground fires,' he wrote. 'For wherever there is a volcano, there also is a conservatory or storehouse of fire under it; it is certain that where there is a chimney or smoke, there is fire. And these fires argue for deeper treasuries and storehouses of fire, in the very heart and inward bowels of the Earth.'

As his fame grew he also became a go-to person for the Jesuits on new knowledge, eventually curating a museum-like collection of exotic animal specimens and scientific artifacts in his quarters.  This included a large collection of Egyptian manuscripts as part his lifelong passion, Egyptology.  But while he made many grand claims that were eventually refuted and spent years on theories that never worked out, he was one of the first people to discern the connection between hieroglyphics and the Coptic languages.  This would be a key building block for Thomas Young and others who would eventually crack the code and be the first to (accurately) translate these ancient characters.  Who cares if Kircher's translation of ancient obelisks were completely least he made progress that would end up helping researchers years later.

Finally, he is even connected to the Royal Society of London.
Links to Kircher were widespread among the Royal Society's members and their experiments. Robert Boyle, who in 1661 published The Sceptical Chymist, an attempt to sort Hermetic alchemical fictions from experimental chemical facts, is also known for his work on vacuums, atmospheric pressure, and the properties of air, conducted in the late 1650s. Only fifteen years or so before, the jury was still out on whether vacuums even existed. Kircher, obliged to deny the possibility of a vacuum (vacuums were abhorred by nature, per Aristotle), had been present at an inconclusive experiment involving a siphon, water, and a very long lead tube, conducted in Rome sometime in the early 1640s. Kircher disingenuously reported that it had failed. But that experiment helped inspire Evangelista Torricelli, who in 1644 not only created a vacuum but essentially invented the mercury barometer - and that experiment inspired a great deal of discussion and trial by Boyle and others. In 1657, two years after Kircher's friend Kaspar Schott returned to Germany, Schott published the first of his own books, an aggregation of information on mechanics, hydraulics, and pneumatics. He somewhat unenthusiastically included a report  on the air pump recently invented by Otto con Guericke of Magdeburg, which Boyle read.  Boyle and his assistant, Robert Hooke, made an improved version of it, which allowed them to carry out their unprecedented series of experiments, published in 1660. And so it wasn't Kircher but his disciple who helped put old notions about the impossibility of a vacuum to rest.
From a modern perspective it is easy to dismiss Kircher and laugh at his many scientific failings.  But we all make huge mistakes and the work of scientists never proceeds smoothly.  There are many false starts along the way.  We also produce many bad hypotheses that don't pan out and design experiments that end up disproving the concepts they were meant to establish.  And I think that is one of the best lessons from Kircher.  As citizen scientists we can't be afraid to look foolish or make claims that might be wrong.  The best we can do is fearlessly discuss our work and allow the scientific method to judge our ideas.  Many things will be wrong.  But as a group we will keep getting closer to the answer, and can build on each other's work.