The CUNY Graduate Center is hosting a sold-out first-ever gathering on Tuesday of the Athanasius Kircher Society in honor of 17th-century Jesuit polymath, an oddball natural scientist, historian, and rhetorician who explored Egyptology, Coptic grammar, the study of wind, and obelisks, and explored the connection between magnetism and love.
"Kircher was the last of these great dinosaurs of erudition who can trample any fence between fields," a professor at Princeton University who will read a letter at the gathering about Kircher's descent into a volcano, Anthony Grafton, said.
Kircher lived just at the point when specialization in the university was commencing. Although the rationalist René Descartes helped eclipse his reputation, the once famous Kircher made contributions to Egyptology, volcanology, Sinology, ethnomusicology, and a dozen other eclectic subjects, writing 30 books and opening a public museum.
"Kircher was the proto-nerd," a freelance journalist who founded the Kircher Society, Joshua Foer, said. "Kircher had his hand in everything cool that was happening in the 17th century. He's like the Zelig of the 17th century."
Kircher researched the size of Noah's Ark and pontificated on which language Adam and Eve spoke. Mr. Foer said Kircher got a whole lot wrong, but it did not seem to bother him.
The society now exists only as a Web site, though it receives as many as 160,000 unique visitors a month. Mr. Foer said visitors range from cultural historians to film editors. (Kircher was a pioneer in studying magic lanterns and the display of images, and was among the first to see microbes through a microscope.)
Mr. Foer — a brother of the editor of the New Republic, Franklin Foer, and novelist Jonathan Safran Foer — read about Kircher as an undergraduate at Yale University.
Adrienne Klein, the co-director of Science & the Arts at the CUNY Graduate Center, which is a sponsor of the meeting, said that among the center's past sold-out science events were a conference on visual arts and the brain, a program on crocheting and mathematics, and the emotional life of a spacecraft that was about to crash into Jupiter.
Ms. Klein said each of presenters on Tuesday in some way will touch on "our sense of wonder. "I think science is curiosity," she said. "Can you think of a better definition of science?"
Although tickets are no longer available for the gathering, a video of the event will be posted last on the kirchersociety.org.
Viewers can see audience members test Kim Peek, the savant who inspired the film "Rain Man." The audience will quiz Mr. Peek on the myriad books he has memorized. (Joshua Foer, who is writing a book about the science of memory, is keenly interested in the subject.)
A man named Nate True will flash a strobe light on water dropping at a steady pace to give the impression of a drop of water suspended in time. Jesse Ferguson will stretch one of his Rube Goldberg contraptions across the stage. Joe Kittinger, who has fallen farther than anyone in space, will recount his atmospheric records.
Mr. Foer said he is pondering the next step for the Kircher Society. He said people ask him how they can become a member. "Right now," he said, "I don't know."