A Magnetic Oracle
Magnes, sive de Arte Magnetica

(Rome 1641)


Magnes, Kircher's second and most significant book on magnetic phenomena, consists of three sections- the first describing the nature and properties of magnets, the second on practical applications including navigation and mechanical curiosities, and finally a philosophical discussion on how magnetism and analogous forces conspire to define all of nature. It is the second section, containing charts and tables compiled by Kircher from reports solicited from Jesuit scholars throughout the world that generated intense interest in the book. Detailing a wealth of data on variations in magnetic readings across longitude, latitude, and time, its success resulted in its being reprinted twice within the next few years. At the same time, Magnes generated considerable controversy in the nascent international scientific community for its dismissal of key concepts from predecessors such as Johann Kepler and William Gilbert. In one instance, Kepler, expanding on Gilbert's speculation, described the sun as a huge magnet, whose rotation on its axis caused the earth and planets (themselves smaller magnets) to move around it in orbits. Kircher disproved this by experimenting with actual magnets, and observing that rotation of a large central magnet actually caused a sympathetic axial rotation in its otherwise stationary satellites. On the basis of this phenomenon, Kircher devised a device for 'magnetic hydromancy' in which small wax figures, embedded with magnets and suspended in water-filled globes, could be made to spell out specific messages or forecasts from symbols and letters printed on the surface of their vessels. Controlled by a hand-cranked rotating central magnet, this mechanically simulated divination device, bearing the Hermetic motto 'Nature Rejoices in Nature', epitomizes Kircher's unique blend of skepticism towards paranormal activities and delight in the underlying mysteries of seemingly mundane reality.

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