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Diane French (left) and Maxx Frost of the Class of 2012 light each other up in a workshop organized by Dr. Kathryn Wagner’s freshman seminar, “The Chemistry of Magic.”
Diane French (left) and Maxx Frost of the Class of 2012 light each other up in a workshop organized by Dr. Kathryn Wagner’s freshman seminar, “The Chemistry of Magic.”

Whatever the January 13 issue of The Daily Princetonian might lead you to believe, Princeton is not Hogwarts, but thanks to the David A. Gardner ’69 Magic Project, our faculty, staff, and students have been able to do some extraordinary things. Prior to his untimely death in 2001, David was a successful real estate developer and venture capitalist, widely admired for his integrity, generosity, and charm. He was also an accomplished magician—an avocation he embraced in childhood, practiced at Princeton to the delight of his Quadrangle Club mates, and pursued throughout his life. As his entry in The Nassau Herald noted, “He would most like to be remembered for his program of perfidious prestidigitation.”

To honor this passion, David’s widow, Lynn Shostack, created some magic of her own by endowing a fund within the Council of the Humanities to “encourage unusual, even surprising, intellectual endeavors that depart from the status quo and have the potential to reshape a body of knowledge.” Like dazzling sleights of hand, transformative scholarship and pedagogy defy conventional wisdom, but unlike conjurers, who are encouraged to attempt the seemingly impossible, scholars and teachers who venture into uncharted waters often find themselves without support. Sometimes their work is deemed too risky; sometimes it transgresses disciplinary boundaries; and sometimes it must yield to higher departmental or institutional priorities. As a result, there are a host of what Lynn calls “intellectual nooks and crannies” that might not receive the attention they deserve. And this is unfortunate, for it is often at the interstices of knowledge that the most important insights can be found.

Happily for Princeton, Lynn has ensured that every year as many as two dozen innovative proposals, primarily in the humanities but also in the social and natural sciences, receive the support they need to blossom. Some have an explicitly magical focus, such as two conferences on Renaissance magic and its relationship to modern science, reflecting, in Professor of English Nigel Smith’s words, that “the two ways of explaining the universe were far more continuous than has been acknowledged.” Another example can be found in an unforgettable freshman seminar developed by the Department of Chemistry’s Kathryn Wagner. Called “The Chemistry of Magic,” it was designed to introduce non-science majors to chemical concepts and, more broadly, to the scientific method by studying, optimizing, and demonstrating effects historically associated with the world of magic. For her students, as well as those attending public presentations of these feats, science was revealed as something truly exciting—a description not often associated with first-year survey courses!

Similarly, Professor of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Cultures Rubén Gallo was able to develop “the most enjoyable and rewarding course I have taught at Princeton,” an undergraduate seminar on the history of magic lanterns. Invented in the 17th century, these projection devices were closely associated with the supernatural before assuming more mundane educational and entertainment roles in the 19th, paving the way for the cinematograph and, ultimately, the motion pictures that we know today.

But more often than not, the initiatives supported by the Gardner fund are magical not in terms of subject matter but in terms of their effects, opening gateways to ideas, approaches, and materials that would otherwise be largely or wholly inaccessible. There is a wonderful eclecticism to the proposals that are funded, both with respect to the questions they address and the activities they foster. Indeed, what makes Lynn’s gift so special, beyond its bold embrace of the unusual, is that it is potentially a gift for everyone.

To give you just a few examples, the Gardner fund has supported Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature Susan Draper’s research into the neglected writings of female political prisoners in Latin America, as well as a remarkable course by Professor of Sociology Mitchell Duneier that uses the songs of Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band as an entrée to contemporary social issues. It has enabled Professor of Near Eastern Studies Michael Cook to establish a three-week summer school designed to spark “a renaissance” in the study of Arab dialects, while supporting an entirely new kind of musical expression in the form of Princeton’s celebrated laptop orchestra, which brings together music and computer science in a way that re-imagines traditional ensembles.

And it has furthered the work of both the art museum and the library, be it by supporting a forthcoming exhibition that explores the multifaceted role of Africans in Renaissance Europe— the first of its kind to do so—or by enabling the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections to digitize, catalog, and make available online a priceless collection of 800 French silent films. As Graphic Arts Librarian Julie Mellby put it, “Thanks to the generosity of Lynn Shostack and two grants from the David A. Gardner ’69 fund, Princeton University students and faculty will soon have the delight of viewing these silent ‘flickers’ just as their grandparents might have done in the 1920s.”

Now, if that isn’t magic, I don’t know what is!