Saturday, April 24, 2010


Glendale, April 24—
A FEW YEARS BACK our friends Jim and Lisa told us about a curious place down here in Los Angles, the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Words don't do the place justice, though many have attempted the task — me included, of course.

We stopped off at Jim and Lisa's the other night, as we often do on our semiannual drives down here for plays at A Noise Within, and they told us about a special presentation held today at Occidental College: A Wonder Cabinet, a series of presentations of arcane matters by curious specialists, all curated by Lawrence Weschler. Since I think of Weschler's book Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees as one of the great books of the twentieth century, and respect his judgement as much as his writing skills, I could hardly turn down the opportunity. We didn't get to campus in time for the opening presentations, but did manage to take in five events. And this is what they were:

Ricky Jay, slight-of-hand master and archivist on arcana, magic, and entertainments, discussed 18th and 19th-c. English books on Illustrious Persons, special attention to those compiled by James Granger and, later, James Caulfield. Jay concentrated on persons classified by those authors as persons famous for one thing having happened to them — a fellow, for example, who, on the death of his fiancée, never washed either himself or any of his clothing again until the day he died. He mentioned a number of other persons of fleeting fame, however; among them Nikolai Fyodorov, who believed that to attain perfect brotherhood among humanity man's "Common Task" was the resurrection of all humans who have died, and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who, by taking the idea the next step to propose space travel in order to accommodate the vast numbers of persons who would result, inspired the Soviet space program.

Walter Murch then discussed, elegantly and clearly, the Titus-Bode Law describing (and predicting) the positions of orbits, whether of planets within the solar system, the moons of the various planets, or the electrons in atomic structure. This was an extraordinarily fascinating presentation; its complexity was greatly resolved by superb graphic presentation and, of course, Murch's calm, reasoned, persuasive voice. I wouldn't have missed this for anything.

Ken Libbrecht, chair of the department of Physics at Cal Tech, discussed the geometry and formation of snowflakes, showing a number of photographs he's taken with an impressive apparatus of his own design.

And Matt Shlian gave a summary of his brilliant career as a paper engineer, specializing in the transformation of single flat sheets of paper into incredible sculptures involving cuts, folds, and curves resulting in elaborate, often kinetic, elegant sculpture.

Weschler's model for these presentations, like Wilson's model for his Museum of Jurassic Technology, is the Cabinet of Wonders, the omnium-gatherum of specimens, drawings, books, and curiosities assembled by collectors to gratify their own urges but also to instruct their communities; these gradually evolved into the museums familiar in our own culture, whether of art or natural history or technology.

It was interesting witnessing all this the day after a hasty visit, at the Getty Center, of a display of drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. Clearly the same convergence of love of aesthetic and urge to knowledge animates all this activity: it's a great pleasure to see it in operation.

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