Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

July 7, 2008


Long time readers will know that the Review is a fan of the Athanasius Kircher Society, "chartered to perpetuate the spirit and sensibilities of the late Athanasius Kircher, SJ." Its "interests extend to the wondrous, the curious, the singular, the esoteric, and the sometimes hazy frontier between the plausible and the implausible - anything that Father Kircher might find inspiring if he were alive today." Sadly, the website has not been updated in weeks and now it has disappeared altogether. Any sightings will be greatly appreciated.

John Seabrook, New Yorker, 2007 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. Travelers 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.). . .

Rosamond Purcell, another presenter, showed slides of her photographs, an eerie grotesquerie of natural-historical specimens. . .

Then it was time for the world première of the balcony scene from "Romeo and Juliet" performed in Solresol, a seven-syllable universal language invented in the early nineteenth century, in which each syllable corresponds to the seven notes of the major scale. . .

Finally, the society heard from retired Colonel Joe Kittinger, who made the world's highest parachute jump, in 1960, from 102,800 feet. He told a harrowing story of a seventy-six-thousand-foot jump, in which his parachute wrapped around his neck, sending him into a 140-r.p.m. spin-until, at last, the reserve chute deployed. It wasn't clear what Kittinger had to do with Kircher.

At the end of the meeting, a replica of a two-foot-long walrus-penis bone, or baculum, was presented to whoever had the program printed with the words "Walrus Baculum."


Anonymous peter kessler said...

Col. Joe Kittinger investigated the possibility of escape and survival from a faltering spaceship. During the investigation he made a host of ever-higher jumps culminating in the 102,000ft record shattering jump, making him the first man in the edge of space and making a record that has yet to be broken. The spin-cord entanglement was from an earlier jump. The last jump was made with a
missing glove, but it/he survived.

July 7, 2008 11:00 PM  
Anonymous Axel in Montreal said...

It sure was a shock to me when I clicked on my Kircher Society bookmark and got a white page with an error message. A whois check turned up only the site's server; maybe they can tell us what is happening: whois@bluehost.com .

Didn't know I was a self-consciously twee New York hipster. I'll take it as a compliment.

July 8, 2008 11:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This morning the website has a message saying the society will return shortly.

July 10, 2008 9:37 AM  
Anonymous niku said...

The blog was one of my favourite sites on the internet. I hope it will be back soon!

September 4, 2008 11:55 AM  
Blogger xabier said...

Any news about the site, what happened?

December 30, 2008 5:46 PM  
Anonymous David Neubert said...

I opened my program from 2007 to find details about this year and was disappointed to find it no long exists.

Perhaps you should contact Joshua Foer who is list in my 2007 program as the "Secretary of the Athanasius Kircher Society"

January 6, 2009 2:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So sad it's still MIA.

August 4, 2009 8:09 PM  

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