Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Enough with the ectoplasm and pseudo-science! It's time for some Renaissance skepticism!

It seems only right to follow a month of willfully credulous Halloween posts with some science-based debunking of wondrous phenomena. And who better to take on the task than seventeenth-century polymath Athanasius Kircher?

I’ve just started digging into a new book by Joscelyn Godwin about Kircher, Athanasius Kircher’s Theatre of the World: The Life and Work of the Last Man to Search for Universal Knowledge, and thus far it’s fascinating—and visually stunning, oversized and packed with Kircher’s own illustrations for his many books. For more about Godwin’s book, you can check out Philip Pullman’s rave review from the Guardian. I’m sure I’ll have more to share in the coming weeks, but for now, I’ll just let Godwin tell how Kircher applied his inquisitive intellect to the question of whether, indeed, giants once walked the land:
In the second volume of Mundus Subterraneus, Kircher treats the creatures that live, or lived, beneath the surface of the earth. In pride of place are the giants, both real and legendary. This plate shows from left to right a giant whose skeleton Boccaccio reports and discovered in Mount Erice; an ordinary man, Goliath, champion of the Philistines who was slain by David; and giants reported from Switzerland and Mauritania. Of course Kircher believed in Goliath, “six cubits and a hand in height” (i.e. about ten feet or three metres, as stated in I Samuel 17:4), but only as a special case “due to God’s providence for manifesting the glory of his people.” He gave no credence to the other reports, arguing that even if animals of such size live in the sea, none exist on earth. If they did, they would soon have devoured the available food and exterminated all other creatures. And if a man of this size existed, where would he live? How could he find enough to eat? What would he wear? Then there is the question of his weight. Just as colossal statues need extra props, a man of this size could hardly move without collapsing. To clinch the matter, in 1637 Kircher himself had visited the cave in Sicily where the giant had supposedly been found. It was much too small to house him, and there was no sign of his bones. On the same expedition, Kircher consented to view the site of discovery of a collection of monstrous teeth and bones which a historian of Sicily, Marchese Carolo de Vintimiglia, was convinced were those of a giant. After finding not a single human-like bone, Kircher concluded that they were the remains of an elephant, probably left over from Hannibal’s campaign.
Lest the vanishing prospect of giants hiding somewhere in Switzerland or Sicily leave you saddened at the lack of marvels on the earth, you should take heart from the opening of Godwin’s next paragraph:
Although he did not believe in giants, dragons were another matter.
Oh, it seems so unfair that Kircher wasn’t alive scientists began to reconstruct dinosaurs—how he would have loved the charmingly inaccurate dinosaur statues of Crystal Palace Park!

{Photo by rocketlass. For more Crystal Palace dinosaurs, go here.}


  1. How is it I'd never even heard of Kircher? This sounds wonderful!

  2. Kircher is well worth looking into. I first encountered him through an exhibit at the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles; he might as well be their patron saint, given how broad his interests and how much they shade--because of their era--into pseudoscience. (Sadly, the Athanasius Kircher Society seems to be defunct, though there are still traces on the Internet.

    Godwin's book should be available in Australia, probably from Thames and Hudson, who published the UK edition.

  3. You're right, it is. Ordered!