Conference of Curiosity

The silica-fusing firestorm that results from a ten-megaton nuclear missile began the second annual Conference of Curiosity with a bang. Hosted in the Glessner House’s refinished stables and curated by Jeff Wagg, the Conference found a comfortable niche between a TEDx convention, a PBS documentary, and a “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not”. Though we had started late and without much preparatory fanfare, the audience was nevertheless transfixed by Lt. Col. Hal Bidlack’s accounts of his key-turning experiences in the Strategic Air Command. Brandishing a red binder, he said, “This is the book you open when you want to end the world,” and passed it down into the audience. It was mercifully empty.

His presentation belonged to a day-long docket of tangentially-related learning exercises, as presenters convened to speak on topics as disparate as homicidal miniatures and homopolar motors. Author Aubrey Henretty briefed us on effective deception. Jairus Durnett conducted a reader’s theater for the Battle of Cannae and the three Punic Wars, complete with hammy speech-making, plumed helmets, and plastic gladii. I discovered there’s a healthy underground trade for notoriously unobtainable musk-flavored candies in the United States, from Australia, where the market’s more firmly entrenched. I also discovered that they’re pretty delicious.

Wagg believes in curiosity’s restorative and reconciliatory powers. “It’s pretty difficult to be depressed and curious, or hateful and curious,” he said. “I’d like people to realize that the world is still an interesting place.” He hopes to defeat the nightly news, with its shootings, its crashes, and its brutishly Hobbesian overtones. To that end, he’s led tours and trips to the Galapagos, Greece, and Israel, but the conference is a new tactic for dissolving weary jadedness and half-hip, all-acid sarcasm. Before lunchtime, he’d established a robust, extra-academic space for friendly education, his speakers all treating their varied topics in compellingly simple terms.

For all its latent nerdiness, the conference developed an impressively thorough discourse on wonder and amazement. What are the moral harms behind mentalism and mysticism? Why can’t theatric magic win improv’s critical legitimacy and Second City’s coolness? What is a puzzle’s inherent appeal? Magician Denis Watkins said that his job was to “ignite the imagination,” and–in the end–the conference had that exact effect. It anticipated the Lt. Col.’s burningly nuclear opening, and ultimately stoked the mind’s inquisitive joy.

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