Friday, June 1, 2012

Pottermania; Or How Knowledge Is Power

As we mentioned in a previous post, we went to the University of California at San Diego for the National Library of Medicine's exhibit and lecture series on: Harry Potter's World: Renaissance Science, Magic, and Medicine on May 24th, 2012.

From where we live here in the desert, it took us a little over two hours to drive to San Diego.  One thing we love about traveling is getting the chance to experience climates other than our dry desert climate. When most people talk about their perfect day as far as weather is concerned it usually looks a little like this: crystal clear blue sky, warm sun heating up the earth. Here is what our perfect weather day looks like: cloudy or overcast warm gray sky, just cool enough to require a light cardigan.

San Diego provided the perfect weather.

None of us here at California Poppies had ever been to UCSD and unfortunately we didn’t have time to explore more of the campus. While on our way to the library, we stopped for a picture (our nephew Brendan, also a Potter fan, came with us) and noticed something odd in the back ground. What's wrong with this picture?

On closer inspection: 

Like I said, we didn't have time to inspect, but we figured that since it was on the engineering building it had to do with some odd angles or something. Doing a little online research once we got home, it looks like we were kind of right. It is a part of a series of sculptures for the Stuart collection and you can read more about that here. We only got to visit the library, but what a library it is! The Geisel Library is AMAZING! It looks like a mirrored alien space ship docked on stilts. However, when you consider that it was named after Theodor Geisel-who was Dr. Seuss, it makes PERFECT sense that it looks like a wonky futuristic tree house. The lecture we were attending was held in the Seuss room of the Geisel Library.

The lecture was given by Professor Stephen Pott’s who teaches literature at the university.  Professor Pott’s (totally sounds like a character from Harry Potter, right?!?) was witty and charismatic and overall gave an excellent lecture on the influence knowledge has on power. In fact Professor Pott's quoted the famous philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon (1561-1626) who famously  said, “Knowledge is power” which was the crux of Pott’s lecture: comparing how knowledge, in both the real or muggle world and the wizarding world, is a source of power.

Pott’s pointed out that in the Harry Potter series there is a line between those (like the Dursley’s and the Ministry after the death eaters take it over) who believe that Might Makes Right. This is a stark comparison to Harry Potter, Dumbledore and their friends who believe that you must control your magic and thus your power in order to do good.  Basically, power corrupts. The changing scientific advances that took the west out of the Middle Ages and into the early modern period saw these same conflicts: between might as power and knowledge as power. Which is ultimately better? Might or knowledge….


The Harry Potter Exhibit comprised of a display about the witch hunts which lasted from about the 15th through the 18th century (one of my favorite historical interests). One book was the Malleus Maleficarum which translated means the Hammer of the Witches. Basically this was a guide written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger to help local town leaders identify witches and, more importantly, the Malleus Maleficarum was a treatise refuting the skepticism that witches even existed. If you are interested in reading more about this fascinating period in history, I highly recommend The Malleus Maleficarum and the Construction of Witchcraft by Hans Peter Broedel.

The exhibit also showcased what truly makes the Harry Potter series so great: author J.K. Rowling’s ability to mix magic and the real world.  Rowling herself even said, “I wanted Harry to leave our world and find exactly the same problems in the wizarding world. So you have the intent to impose a hierarchy, you have bigotry, and this notion of purity, which is this great fallacy, but it crops up all over the world.”

These books are truly a classic tale that can be summed up by Albus Dumbledore, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities,” a point that Professor Stephen Pott’s continually made in his excellent lecture. Our choices are what define us.

  *sigh, I love stuff like that.*

And I have to add that when I registered for this lecture, there was an option to write about how Harry Potter has inspired you. I of course could not pass up the opportunity and I gleefully was surprised to see that my quote was a part of maybe 10 others that was rotated on the screen before the lecture began. Here is what I said:

After the lecture, we decided to eat lunch and chose a little place called Elijah’s not too far from the school. It was tucked into a shopping plaza and offered a sit down menu as well as a selection of breads and pastries already made and ready to go. I can’t remember what everyone ordered but the hummus and pita bread were delicious! The tables even had this cute little wooden barrel filled with pickles to eat at your leisure.

 San Diego has so much to offer that it really would take a long mini break to even experience a fraction of this historical, beautiful city. While on our way home, we were all dreaming of taking such a break one day in the future.

It was a great time and the magic that surrounds Harry Potter and learning was lingering on us all with the possibilities that feel, well, possible when on a college campus. So here’s to Harry Potter, the magical kid in us all, and knowledge which is my idea of what power truly is.

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