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Touching History

by Michael Shermer, Oct 12 2010
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Skeptical Luminaries right to left: paranormal investigator Joe Nickell, Center for Inquiry founder Paul Kurtz, the Amazing One himself, and psychologist and magician Ray Hyman

On Sunday, October 3, a group of skeptics gathered in Falls Church, Virginia to celebrate James Randi’s 82nd birthday. What an amazing meeting it was … er, an astonishing evening I mean, as Randi prefers to retain the “amazing” adjective for his moniker, James “The Amazing” Randi. Take a look at just a few of the giants present in the above photo — the legends of skepticism (from right to left: paranormal investigator Joe Nickell, Center for Inquiry founder Paul Kurtz, the Amazing One himself, and psychologist and magician Ray Hyman).

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click any of the following thumbnail images to enlarge

Also in attendance were Richard Dawkins, the magician Jamy Ian Swiss, the President of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) D. J. Grothe, and many other skeptical luminaries from around the world, many of whom sang Randi’s praises in the tribute portion of the evening. Randi was presented with a beautiful birthday cake with his inimitable likeness on the icing, and something well short of 82 candles on top to blow out, which he managed successfully.

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After dinner we all adjourned to the private library of a good friend of Randi and benefactor of JREF, who kindly allowed us to peruse his collection of some of the rarest books in the history of science, along with other spectacular items of considerable interest. It is, in short, the finest collection I have ever seen anywhere in the world. Any single volume on any of the shelves would be an item worthy of possession as one’s most cherished belonging, and here there were hundreds of such treasures.

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How’s this for starters?: The Archimedes Palimpsest, purchased at auction for $2.2 million. Check out the two sets of lines on this page: one set of bold lines in Latin that was a medieval prayer book, and the other lighter lines in Greek that was nothing less than one of the most important treatises ever published by the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes. I highly recommend the book, The Archimedes Codex, by Reviel Netz and William Noel, that uncovers the mystery story of how this book came to auction, and the scientific detective story of how Archimedes ancient words were coaxed back to life. (Quality paper for publishing was so rare in the Middle Ages that older books were reused by scraping off the text and reprinting over it.)

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If that isn’t awe inspiring enough, check out the photo of a page from an ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead that Joe Nickell and I are examining. Because papyrus paper is so delicate this one is under glass (so we couldn’t “touch history” directly in this case), but Joe and I were trying to find Randi’s name in there somewhere…

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Talk about touching some old stuff, look at this many millennia-old Babylonian cylinder with cuneiform writing on it, apparently an ancient calculator of sorts (if memory serves … it was a heady evening trying to take in all these treasures).

Going back tens of thousands of years, look at the magnificent Wholly Mammoth tusk, and guess what that is in my hand: yes, that’s Wholly Mammoth hair. Is there a lab somewhere in the world who could take the DNA from that hair and clone a mammoth back to life? Forget Jurassic Park; I’d settle for Paleolithic Land.

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Given my interest in World War II and all things Nazi, which I had to learn in researching my book Denying History (about the Holocaust deniers), this item made the hair on the back of my neck stand up: it’s a first edition of Mein Kampf. This one in particular was signed by Adolf Hitler to “Dr. Goebbels”, 1925. Next to it is another first edition addressed in Hitler’s hand to Hermann Goering.

As well, the library contains two Nazi enigma code machines, designed and built for encryption and decryption of messages and was used during the Second World War. The cracking of the enigma code encryption algorithms by the British led project ULTRA is said to have shortened the war by at least two years, if not being the single most important step toward victory.

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There is something about touching history in this way that almost beggars description. It’s visceral. Running my fingers over the cuneiform clay cuts in the cylinder while imagining some ancient Babylonian accountant or scribe holding it in one hand while pressing into the wet clay with a small writing stick in the other draws one back in time. Rubbing the tips of my fingers over the parchment paper of medieval manuscripts brings to my inner ear a Gregorian chant wafting through the cold, dank halls of a European monastery with monks keeping alive ancient wisdom through their endless hours of copying the masters.

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Visiting this library, in fact, is like a time machine, transporting you back anywhere into the past you like just by touching the spine of a book and pulling it off the shelf. I know, this all sounds so … well … New Ageish. I am a materialist, a monist — someone who does not believe that there is something immaterial like a soul or spirit or essence of a thing that carries on beyond the physical material of its original pattern. But to hold an item of such antiquity and such rarity and originality overwhelms the senses and enthuses the emotions beyond what meager words such as these can convey.

I touched the past and it lived again.

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Rating: 5.0/5 (16 votes cast)
Touching History, 5.0 out of 5 based on 16 ratings

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28 Responses to “Touching History”

  1. Nick Johnson says:

    Wholly mammoth? Glad to hear it’s not just partly mammoth! ;)

    More seriously, I’m very jealous. As someone who’s had the privelige to play with an Enigma machine, and is fascinated by the history of cryptography, anyone who owns not one, but two of them is the subject of much envy on my part.

    • Jim Shaver says:

      Holy Mammoth, Batman! Nick, you beat me to it. I’m sure we don’t mean to pick on you, Michael. We’re just a little jealous, that’s all. And here’s a belated happy birthday wish to Mr. Randi!

      • tmac57 says:

        Better a “wholly mammoth” than a ‘holey’ one. More to work with.
        I too am jealous.Some skeptics have all the…uh…luck?

    • MadScientist says:

      Dang, you beat me to it. However, I would have suggested a Partly Mammoth – you’ve got to get the capitalization right you know.

      You can build your own Enigma machine – they’re very simple devices. Of course it’s nice to have the genuine rotors used so you can decode a message from a genuine Enigma (of the correct type).

  2. John says:

    Now, that is serious history! I am impressed, and a bit jealous. You might get accused of “ancestor worship” but I think it’s just awe and appreciation of the events that got us where we are today. Looking at a little sliver of life today compared to the great past is a bit like looking down at your back yard and then up at a star filled sky.

  3. God, I’m jealous! . . . actually now that I think of it, that probably isn’t the appropriate phrasing =)

    ~Rhaco

  4. Luftritter says:

    First I need to say HAPPY BIRTHDAY MR RANDI!
    He is such an inspiration, very… Amazing indeed.

    Secondly I’ll join the choir and say that as a history freak, I’m very, very jealous.

    Thank you Mr Shermer very interesting story.

  5. Bob Mcbride says:

    Jealous here too.

  6. oldebabe says:

    Surely you-all are `envious’ of Dr. Shermer’s experience in this instance, as am I, not `jealous’ which implies something else.

    • Jim Shaver says:

      Yes, oldebabe, I think you are wholly correct. In our weak defense, the word “jealous” is frequently misused in America as we have misused it here. But envious we are, indeed.

  7. Majority of One says:

    Yes, envious here as well. What a great experience. And, Happy B-Day Mr. Randi! 82 and still going strong!

    I hope the place is fire proof and has good security. I’ve heard of places like these being torched because of what they contain…because certain other of our fellow humans are truly “jealous” of such artifacts.

  8. James Randi says:

    Ummm, Shermer, the parchment wasn’t printed over, it was written over. Gutenberg hadn’t been born yet…

    All that aside, I must say that it was exciting to see Richard Dawkins – one of my guests – so enthralled at the contents of the library. The rest of the 40 visitors wandered about, played with the Enigma machines, gasped at Darwin’s and Newton’s marginal notes in first editions, and I’m sure are still stunned by the visit to this wondrous place. How many persons are fortunate enough to have a birthday celebrated in such a location, I ask you?

    Ah, but my 90th will be even better! Stay tuned!

  9. Sgerbic says:

    I’d really like to know who the photographer was. Very nice group picture.

  10. Pax Starksen says:

    C’mon!
    Didn’t ANYBODY notice that there were FIVE people in the opening photo, and only FOUR named?
    Who’s missing?
    Pax.
    ====

  11. Warren says:

    When talking about the Enigma machine, it would be more precise to use the term “cipher” and “encipher/decipher” and not “code” and “encode/decode”. Codes and ciphers are not the same thing.

  12. Jeff says:

    I got the same feeling of connection meeting Charles Darwin’s great grandson at our local Natural History museum years ago, showing his home movies of the Galapagos Islands. Now that was spooky!

  13. J.P. McLaughlin says:

    First off, happy birthday, James Randi! What an enormous contribution you have made to rational thinking. May you live forever, which I believe you will, in human lore if not in the flesh.
    And (go ahead, throw the piling-on flag), were mammoths wholly woolly or just partly woolly?
    Wish I could have seen that library. What an incredible experience it must have been. Must the “good friend and benefactor” remain anonymous?
    Thanks, Dr. Shermer, for sharing this.

    • Machine Elf says:

      “Must the “good friend and benefactor” remain anonymous?”

      If the ‘word on the street’ about the owner of the Archimedes Palimpsest is correct, that would be Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos.

  14. Randi looks grumpy….and…kinda looks like Grumpy.

  15. Tres Jordan says:

    As a mystic AND a skeptic I’d like to wish Mr Randi a happy Bday and many more.His work and others like him are needed now more than ever with the advent of the internet making mass delusion an even more insidious threat than in all of history.
    Having lived in DC I find it hard to believe that such a grand library exists in Falls Church of all places.

  16. ohduh says:

    Skeptical luminaries….nice. Maybe you can find some way to monetize free thought (copyright critical thinking?)and thereby amass little anti-new age fortunes for yourselves.

    Is there no one in this wide country that can tell the truth without wanting to make a living off doing it? I’ve read Randi’s stuff and he strikes me as every bit as much of a narcissist as Deepak Chopra.

    If Diogenes came back, he would never stop throwing up.

  17. Rakesh Kumar says:

    Historic gathering. How did I miss this??