Magazine article The New Yorker

WONDER BOYS; KOOKY! DEPT. Series: 3/5

Magazine article The New Yorker

WONDER BOYS; KOOKY! DEPT. Series: 3/5

Article excerpt

The first meeting of the Athanasius Kircher Society, held in the CUNY Graduate Center, on Fifth Avenue, last Tuesday evening, was billed as a contemporary wonder cabinet. Not the least of wonders is the revival of interest in Kircher, a seventeenth-century German Jesuit priest. A human search engine, Kircher published dozens of volumes on matters both large--astronomy, Egyptology, cryptography, botany, geology, geography, magnetism, and linguistics--and small, such as the real size of Noah's Ark. Travellers from all over Europe came to see his collection of marvels and oddities in Rome, at the Museum Kircherianum.

By the end of the century, however, modern methods of scholarship had proved many of Kircher's assumptions wrong, and his reputation sank to that of a gifted charlatan. According to Anthony Grafton, of Princeton University, who spoke at the meeting, a Kircher resurgence began in academic circles in the late nineteen-seventies. Kircher's popularity is also growing among the general public, at least with a certain type of self-consciously twee New York hipster (the event sold out a month in advance), for whom YouTube is a modern-day Museum Kircherianum.

Joshua Foer, a twenty-four-year-old freelance science writer, called the meeting to order. Foer is the founder of the Kircher Society, which consists mainly of a Web site that draws attention to subjects (hair museums, blind photographers, thousand-year-old pieces of popcorn) that Kircher might find inspiring. Then Grafton invoked the spirit of Kircher by reading, in Latin, a description of his descent into the crater of Mt. Vesuvius in 1638, undertaken in order to gather data on volcanism.

The first presenter was Kim Peek, the model for the Dustin Hoffman character in the 1988 movie "Rain Man." Peek has read nine thousand books, and has complete recall of them all; he can read a new book in an hour, sometimes scanning the left page with his left eye while he reads the facing page with his right. (His condition may be caused by the absence of his corpus callosum, the tissue that connects the two hemispheres of the brain.)

Peek began by asking Grafton where he lived. Princeton, the professor said. Peek informed him that the Princeton area code had been changed from 609 to 732 (almost: it changed nearby) and added, correctly, that New Jersey was ratified in 1787. …

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