Today, -- after Galileo. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Athanasius Kircher was born in
Germany in 1602, just as Galileo, now thirty-six years
old, was hitting his stride.
Kircher studied humanities, science, languages, and math
in several Jesuit schools. He also became expert in the
subject of physical curiosities; and that term
After Columbus, the sixteenth century had become a great
epoch of exploration. European
ships circled the globe and came back to tell of amazing
new plants, animals, and geography. Picture books appeared with lush images
of curious humans, beasts, plants, and places -- some
real and some imagined.
Those physical curiosities became a metaphor for a new
science of observation. When Kircher became a Jesuit
priest in 1628, he was schooled in the new science. Five
years later, just as the Italian Inquisition called
Galileo to Rome, Pope Urban VIII called Kircher to Rome
as a professor of math, physics, and Oriental languages.
The Inquisition soon sent Galileo
back to Tuscany under a gag order. He and Kircher
didn't meet. While Kircher clearly sympathized with the
sun-centered universe, he was as smooth as Galileo had
been abrasive. He never lost the support of the Church.
Kircher bridged the gap by continuing to speak in the
language of scholars who'd set the philosophical
underpinnings of the Church.
At the same time, he built a great museum to house
curious objects. He wrote on magnetism. He designed
machines. The brilliant Kircher knew twelve languages and
was a student of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. He thought
in symbolic terms and continued the traditional study of
iconography from the century before -- the use of
symbols to express deeper meanings.
He shaped his iconography around his Egyptian studies,
and he actually made up his own logical language of
twenty-seven icons. His purpose was to express theology
concisely and accurately. It all had the mystic overtones
of the alchemists who came before Galileo.
Yet he also made important observations. He was one of
the first to systematically study bioluminescence --
living creatures, like fireflies, that glow in the dark.
That eventually led to the discovery of the
light-emitting chemical luciferin.
Kircher worked and prospered under the watchful eye of
the Vatican censor. He gradually wove Galileo's ideas
into the canon of accepted science. The sun, he wrote,
was not a perfect crystalline sphere, but, rather, a
constantly erupting ball of fire. Coming from Kircher,
the censor let that pass. Kircher had become the current
superstar of Italian science; he could get away with it.
All this leaves us with a sense of uneasy compromise.
Galileo not only originated brilliant ideas; he was also
willing to confront the establishment. But brash new
ideas die if they can't become a part of normal thinking.
That's where Kircher came in. Look at science in any age,
and you'll find Galileos and Kirchers, the matched pairs
needed to complete any scientific evolution.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.