On a remote island in the Pacific Ocean, uncanny monoliths dot the countryside, their quizzical expressions revealing little about their origins or construction. In a desert in Peru, massive symbols measuring hundreds of feet and depicting birds, mammals, and humanoid figures with incredible precision sprawl across the topography. Visible in their entirety only from the heavens, the geoglyphs raise unnerving questions about for whom these figures were designed.
On June 8-18, 2015, travel with Princeton Journeys to explore two of South America’s greatest unsolved mysteries: the moais of Easter Island and the Nazca Lines. You will be joined by Professor Michael D. Gordin, the Rosengarten Professor of Modern and Contemporary History, an expert in the sociology of fringe theories and the paranormal within our modern era of scientific empiricism. Along the way, you will also have the opportunity to savor the rich culture, cuisine, and natural beauty that South America has to offer, and an optional post-tour extension will take you to Macchu Picchu and the “Gate of the Sun” on the eve of the solstice.
Michael D. Gordin, the Rosengarten Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Princeton University, will serve as Princeton Study Leader for this program. In the company of our local guide, who will lay out the historical and cultural significance of the sites on the itinerary, Professor Gordin will explain how the mystery surrounding these sites was either explained by or formed the basis for fringe science theories.
At Princeton Professor Gordin teaches courses in the history of modern science, as well as topics in Russian, European and American history. He earned his undergraduate and doctoral degrees in the History of Science at Harvard University and served a term at the Harvard Society of Fellows before joining the History Department at Princeton University in 2003. He is the author of four books: A Well-Ordered Thing: Dmitrii Mendeleev and the Shadow of the Periodic Table (2004), a cultural biography of the famous Russian chemist; Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War (2007), a history of the first (and to date only) use of nuclear weapons in war; Red Cloud at Dawn: Truman, Stalin, and the End of the Atomic Monopoly (2009), which relates the development of the Soviet nuclear program in the first five years of the Atomic Era; and The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe (2012).
This last book chronicles the debates around the sensational career of Immanuel Velikovsky (1895-1979), a Russian-born psychoanalyst who eventually settled in Princeton, where he continued to champion for his controversial theory about recent catastrophes in the solar system revealed in ancient legends, elaborating his 1950 smash bestseller, Worlds in Collision. The research for this work was drawn from Velikovsky's astonishing personal archive, stored in Firestone Library, and fulfilled a life-long interest (dating from middle school) in doctrines typically designated as "pseudosciences." The era of Velikovsky's mature career tracked a number of such fringe theories combining cosmic events with antiquity, often attempting to explain wonders of the ancient world or cross-cultural mythology through catastrophes or alien visitations. Thus, this journey is part of a sustained exploration of how the history of science can be understood through a global history of its doppelgänger, existing on the fringe.