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Posts Tagged ‘Athanasius Kircher

“Different musical instruments provide for different music”*…

The German polymath and Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher [see here] had a lifelong fascination with sound and devoted two books to the subject: Musurgia Universalis (1650), on the theoretical (and theological) aspects, and Phonurgia Nova (1673), on the science of acoustics and its practical applications. It’s no surprise then to learn that his famed museum at Rome’s Collegio Romano boasted— in addition to “vomiting statues”, ghost-conjuring mirrors, and other curious wonders — a vast and diverse collection of musical instruments.

Much of what we know of Kircher’s museum today is thanks to his student and fellow Jesuit priest Filippo Buonanni (1638-1725), who succeeded Kircher as both Professor of Mathematics and, upon Kircher’s death, as chief custodian of the museum for which he produced an epic and exhaustive, near-800-page catalogue in 1709. Following in his master’s footsteps, Buonanni too held a dizzying array of interests and specialisms including numismatics, microscopy, spontaneous generation, Chinese laquer, seashells (on which he produced the first monograph), and also, like Kircher, music.

Inspired by the collection of instruments in Kircher’s wunderkammer, and intrigued by the stories behind them, in 1722 Buonanni published his Gabinetto Armonico pieno d’istromenti sonori (or Harmonic cabinet full of sonorous instruments), an attempt to catalogue, for the first time, the musical instruments of the world. While there’s a short and often illuminating text for each instrument it is the 152 engraved plates — executed by Flemish artist and publisher Arnold van Westerhout — which really steal the show. The featured instruments are divided into three sections — wind, string, and percussion — and preceded by thirteen brief discussions of other musical categories, including: military, funeral, used in sacrifices, and, intriguingly, as used at sea: not sirens, but chantying sailors. While some of the instruments gathered in Buonanni’s book are as simple as the bee-keeper banging his tub, or the clacking of shoes against the floor, some are highly crafted, technical machines; the great organ at Palazzo Verospi requires a fold-out page to show it all. We are also treated to what might be considered more incidental instruments, for example, the bell about a bound criminal’s neck and the sound of a soldier’s sword being struck…

Engravings from an ambitious and beautiful attempt to catalogue, for the first time, the musical instruments of the world: “Filippo Buonanni’s Harmonic Cabinet (1722)

Browse the volume on the Internet Archive; see the full collection of drawings on Flickr.

* Amos Oz


As we celebrate sound, we might send melodic birthday greetings to Giuseppe Domenico Scarlatti; he was born on this date in 1685. A composer (and keyboardist), he is regularly classified chronologically as part of the Baroque period (along with his famous father, Alessandro Scarlatti); but Domenico’s work– perhaps especially his 555 keyboard sonatas– were richly influential in the development of the Classical style.


“Real randomness requires an infinite amount of information”*…


If you have ever tossed dice, whether in a board game or at the gambling table, you have created random numbers—a string of numbers each of which cannot be predicted from the preceding ones. People have been making random numbers in this way for millennia. Early Greeks and Romans played games of chance by tossing the heel bone of a sheep or other animal and seeing which of its four straight sides landed uppermost. Heel bones evolved into the familiar cube-shaped dice with pips that still provide random numbers for gaming and gambling today.

But now we also have more sophisticated random number generators, the latest of which required a lab full of laser equipment at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Boulder, CO. It relies on counterintuitive quantum behavior with an assist from relativity theory to make random numbers. This was a notable feat because the NIST team’s numbers were absolutely guaranteed to be random, a result never before achieved.

Why are random numbers worth so much effort? Random numbers are chaotic for a good cause. They are eminently useful, and not only in gambling. Since random digits appear with equal probabilities, like heads and tails in a coin toss, they guarantee fair outcomes in lotteries, such as those to buy high-value government bonds in the United Kingdom. Precisely because they are unpredictable, they provide enhanced security for the internet and for encrypted messages. And in a nod to their gambling roots, random numbers are essential for the picturesquely named “Monte Carlo” method that can solve otherwise intractable scientific problems…

Using entanglement to generate true mathematical randomness– and why that matters: “The Quantum Random Number Generator.”

* Tristan Perich


As we leave it to chance, we might send learned birthday greetings to Athanasius Kircher; he was born on this date in 1602.  A scholar, he published over 40 works. perhaps most notably on comparative religion, geology, and medicine, but over a range so broad that he was frequently compared to Leonardo Da Vinci (who died on the date in 1519) and was dubbed “Master of a Hundred Arts.”

For a look at one of his more curious works, see “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.” And his take on The Plague (through which he lived in Italy in 1656), see here.

220px-Athanasius_Kircher_(cropped) source

“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom”*…


Depiction of a Dragon featured in Mundus Subterraneus

Just before Robert Hooke’s rightly famous microscopic observations of everything from the “Edges of Rasors” to “Vine mites” appeared in Micrographia in 1665, the insatiably curious and incredibly prolific Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher [see here] published what is in many ways a more spectacular work. Mundus Subterraneus  (Underground world), a two-volume tome of atlas-like dimensions, was intended to lay out “before the eyes of the curious reader all that is rare, exotic, and portentous contained in the fecund womb of Nature.” There is an “idea of the earthly sphere that exists in the divine mind,” Kircher proclaimed, and in this book, one of more than thirty on almost as many subjects that he published during his lifetime, he tried to prove that he had grasped it.

As a French writer put it some years later, “it would take a whole journal to indicate everything remarkable in this work.” There were extended treatments on the spontaneous generation of living animals from non-living matter, the unethical means by which alchemists pretended to change base metals into gold, and the apparent tricks of nature we now recognize as fossils. The book included detailed charts of “secret” oceanic motions, or currents, among the first ever published. The author’s more or less correct explanation of how igneous rock is formed was also arguably the first in print. According to one modern scholar, Kircher “understood erosion,” and his entries “on the quality and use of sand” and his “investigations into the tending of fields” had their practical use.

Mundus Subterraneus identified the location of the legendary lost island of Atlantis (something that modern science hasn’t been able to accomplish) as well as the source of the Nile: it started in the “Mountains of the Moon,” then ran northward through “Guix,” “Sorgola,” and “Alata” and on into “Bagamidi” before reaching Ethiopia and Egypt. Kircher offered a lengthy discussion of people who lived in caves (their societies and their economy). He reported on the remains of giants (also mainly cave dwellers) found in the ground. And he went into detail on the kinds of lower animals who belong to the lower world (including dragons).

In short, Mundus Subterraneus covered almost every subject that might relate to the realm of earth, as well as many that wouldn’t seem to, such as the sun and “its special properties, by which it flows into the earthly world” and the “nature of the lunar body and its effects.” These correspondences and influences were nothing new, though perhaps only the always-inclusive Athanasius Kircher would choose to publish a series of moon maps in a book about the world below…

Portrait of Kircher at age 53 from Mundus Subterraneus

More on this extraordinary work– inspired in part by a subterranean adventure Kircher himself made into the bowl of Vesuvius– at John Glassie‘s “Athanasius, Underground“; browse the book at the Internet Archive.

* Socrates


As we praise polymathy, we might recall that it was on this date in 1804 that Corps of Discovery– better known today as the Lewis and Clark Expedition– left Camp Dubois, near Wood River, Illinois, commencing what would be a trek over two years on which they became the first American expedition to cross what is now the western portion of the United States.

President Thomas Jefferson had commissioned the expedition shortly after the Louisiana Purchase (in 1803) to explore and to map the newly acquired territory, to find a practical route across the western half of the continent– a Northwest Passage– and to establish an American presence in this territory before Britain and other European powers tried to claim it.


Meriwether Lewis and William Clark



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