Seven years ago a high-powered group of intellectuals met in New York to discuss: “Was Athanasius Kircher the coolest guy ever, or what?” This 17th-century German Jesuit polymath, a cheerful, bumptious man, would probably have voted for himself. He was a hands-on scientist who studied volcanoes by descending into the smoking craters of Etna and Vesuvius. Though he was summoned to Rome to teach mathematics, he was also asked to interpret Egyptian hieroglyphs – since he was well-versed in more than 20 languages. He was one of the first people to work with microscopes, and one of the first to propose the role of microorganisms in the spread of disease. The museum he opened in the Roman College became a must-see on the Grand Tour.