Curiosity Club

A group brings the spirit of 19th-century intellectual salons to homes throughout the Valley.

By Keridwen Cornelius

The sunset flames across Camelback Mountain just outside a gorgeous home where about 50 people are sitting to hear a talk about life, the universe and everything. But we’re not sitting still, explains the speaker, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss. We’re whirling at 20 miles per second around that sun, and at 130 miles per second around the galaxy. He describes how the GPS we used to drive here is accurate thanks to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which also tells us objects traveling at the speed of light are measured as smaller by observers. At the break, one man jokes that if he grabs a brownie from the dessert table and runs really fast, it’ll be smaller and have fewer calories.

This is a typically enlightening evening at Spirit of the Senses. The organization has around 300 members and hosts approximately 110 salons a year in homes throughout the Valley, plus cultural tours to New York. September’s salons feature topics such as “The Microbiome’s Effect on Psychology,” “Women of the Ancient World,” and a performance of guitar and violin. Recent speakers include Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, a Jane Austen scholar, an adventure traveler, and several artists, scientists and political experts. At this year’s New York City and Princeton trip, members met with (among others) two Nobel Prize winners: Thinking, Fast and Slow author Daniel Kahneman and neuroscientist Eric Kandel.

The diversity grows out of the insatiable curiosity of directors Thomas Houlon and Patty Barnes. “Growing up in Phoenix, I knew a lot of interesting people who didn’t know each other, and a lot of interesting places most people didn’t know,” says Houlon, who launched Spirit of the Senses in 1983. “I wanted to create a social situation where people could have meaningful conversations, and it would be fun… A lot of people are curious about things, but they don’t have access to people or [the opportunity to] sit down with somebody and ask questions.”

A few years after starting the salons, Houlon met and married Barnes, and the organization took off. Their constantly evolving interests attract speakers and members from a range of perspectives. And the social interactions at the salons create an intellectual alchemy.

“There’s a hunger for this now because of the emphasis on the digital and social media,” Barnes says. “People are saying, ‘Maybe I don’t want to stay home and be at my computer all night. I need a real person to talk to…’ And now they’re saying in articles on neuroscience that you need these kind of groups, that they’re very positive. So, socially, we’re a prescription for our time.”

“There’s such breadth in the things they present; it’s such a variety of intellectual and sensory experiences,” Krauss says. “Thomas and Patty are wonderful, the people of Spirit of the Senses are wonderful. It makes Phoenix a better place to be.”

Membership costs $360 a year to attend five salons each month (that’s $6 per event). For more information, visit