The Sciences


The Oriental Institute brings its Egyptian hall back to life

By Scott KimJun 1, 1999 12:00 AM


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King Tutankhamen gazes down as visitors enter the new Egyptian Gallery at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute. His brick-pink double crown grazes the ceiling. Beneath, in the basement, a fretwork of steel girders keeps the floor from collapsing under his weight--six tons of solid quartzite. "He's over 3,300 years old, but he still has paint on his eyes and lips," says Emily Teeter, the exhibition curator. Near him, she has placed 13 little dun-colored clay dishes--the very ones used at the king's funeral feast.

Teeter's task is to bring Tut back to life, along with the priestesses, workmen, and officials whose mummies and monuments share the gallery with him. "I want the biographical displays to convey who these people were and how they thought," she explains. But to the ancient Egyptians, her efforts at resurrection would be no mere metaphor. They believed the dead would rise and travel to the afterlife, where they would need food, beer, clothing, and servants, just as they had in this world.Since no food or drink is allowed in the museum, visitors won't be able to pour a beer for Khabawptah, the royal manicurist, or Pepiseshemsnefer, a boatman, whose monuments are on display in the biographical section. They won't be able to offer a honey cake made by Thenneti, a confectioner, to Amunirdis, a Nubian princess who ruled Egypt for 30 years around 650 B.C. They can't leave fresh bread for Bakenwerel, a police chief who investigated a burglary at the royal tombs, or for Djedhor, a keeper of sacred birds, who boasts on his monument that he invented a new way to make mummies. Just reading the exhibit labels aloud, however, may be enough. "If there is nothing in your hand, then recite: 1,000 of bread, 1,000 of beer, 1,000 of oxen and fowl," requests a funerary prayer. For the dead, naming food is the same as providing it. "To speak the name of the deceased is to make him live again," declares a tomb inscription.

A bejeweled mummy mask from the first century A.D.Coutesy Oriental Institute, University of Chicago

The Oriental Institute is undergoing its own resurrection. For the past three years, all five galleries have been closed while the institute installed new climate-control systems and built a storage wing. The Egyptian Gallery reopens May 29, with the halls devoted to other Near Eastern countries to follow.

Teeter arranged the Egyptian artifacts thematically, not chronologically, as most museums do. A display of clothing includes sandals, a wig, cosmetic jars, and a child's linen tunic from 1550 B.C. "It's clearly been worn," she says. "See, it's stained and ripped at the neck." Nearby lies a copper needle ready for mending. Another case is devoted to Egyptian cuisine. A heap of 3,000-year-old wheat lies near a plate of eggshells and a fragile clay drinking bowl, which Teeter calls "the Dixie cup of the ancient world." Most of the vessels have rounded bottoms; to keep them upright, diners nestled them in the sand.

A reconstrction of a burial from about 3500 B.C. shows a body with food jars.Coutesy Oriental Institute, University of Chicago

A display on writing shows the great variety of Egyptian texts: a deed for the sale of a house, a copy of the Book of the Dead, a receipt for fish, a schoolboy's homework complete with mistakes, a letter from an embalmer investigating a mysterious death, and a land endowment specifying that the funds from the sale of grass raised on the plot be used to maintain a lamp in the temple of Thoth, the god of writing and reckoning.

No Egyptian collection would seem complete without a mummy. The gallery exhibits 14 of them--5 people and 9 beasts, including hawks, an ibis, a shrew, and a baby crocodile the size of a breadbasket. (Priests would raise, kill, and embalm animals sacred to the gods, then sell them to the pious.) They're part of a section on religion. "Here's one of my favorite pieces," says Teeter, pausing by a block of limestone carved with six ears--three left and three right. "The ears of the god Ptah, for saying your prayers directly to him." But Ptah had only two ears. Why six? Teeter smiles. "Better reception."

Visit the Oriental Institute

Starry Night Deluxe. CD-ROMSienna Software, 1998, $89.95.

The night sky is not what it used to be. In most cities, light pollution blots out all but the moon and a handful of the brightest stars. Lost in the urban glare are the Pleiades, the Milky Way, and thousands of stars. But if you live in a city and own a computer, you can see what you're missing with Starry Night, a remarkable CD-ROM about astronomy. And even if you live under pristine skies, you might prefer to stay inside and play with Starry Night.

The easy-to-use software combines realistic, detailed depictions of the night sky with features that let you roam the universe to view planets, comets, galaxies, and other objects--more than 19 million in all. Double-clicking on any of them, even the most obscure pinprick of a star, opens a descriptive window with links to related Web sites. Other windows teleport you from your own backyard to any planet or moon in the solar system. A zoom-in icon magnifies distant galaxies up to 600,000 times.

Some of the most spectacular places to visit are Saturn's moons. Try going to Mimas. Seen from the small moon's surface, Saturn looms huge in the sky. Best of all, as Mimas circles from Saturn's nightside into daylight, the planet's rings slowly emerge from the darkness, light glinting on their edges. The views of Jupiter, Mars, and Earth from their moons are also beautifully rendered. Starry Night keeps track of time, so during the day you'll see a sunny blue sky on your screen. A click of the mouse blackens the heavens, revealing stars normally hidden by sunlight. The flow of time in this CD universe is adjustable; it's fun to tinker with the orbital speeds of planets and the pace of eclipses, or watch stars shift over thousands of years.

Striking images, culled from the Hubble Space Telescope and observatories around the world, will hook both hard-core astronomy enthusiasts and novices. Telescope owners can use the software to guide their instruments. And urban dwellers can even dim the stars to simulate the view from a well-lit city.

--Tim Folger

The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory.Brian Greene. W. W. Norton, 1999, $27.95.

You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother--or so Albert Einstein believed. While that rule may be easy enough to follow when the subject is forestry, say, or watchmaking, it gets tricky when describing the inner workings of the atom. Fortunately, physicists have made great strides over the last century in both understanding the way the universe works and explaining it. At a recent physics conference, for example, companies sold laminated place mats showing subatomic particles and the fundamental forces that control them. The relative masses of quarks can be contemplated while the soup cools.

Brian Greene doesn't achieve this level of simplicity in The Elegant Universe, but then again, he tackles a subject few people really understand. Physicists struggle with two incompatible descriptions of the way the world works: general relativity, which addresses the behavior of very large objects, and quantum mechanics, which examines very small ones. In 1970, in an attempt to reconcile the two theories, physicists hit upon a novel solution: at the smallest possible scale, the universe consists of tiny loops of vibrating string. The way these strings vibrate determines the mass and behavior of the particles that make up the world we know. What's more, theorists like Greene assert, these strings don't just wriggle in the four dimensions of the workaday world (three plus time), they gyrate in seven bonus dimensions as well--dimensions that wrap their infinities into the space of a million-billion-billion-billionth of an inch. "For instance, if you sweep your hand in a large arc, you are moving not only through the three extended dimensions but also through these curled-up dimensions," Greene writes. "Of course, because the curled-up dimensions are so small, as you move your hand you circumnavigate them an enormous number of times, repeatedly returning to your starting point."

Superstring enthusiasts like to say that the theory is a bit of twenty-first-century physics that landed in our laps. Other physicists have been less charitable, claiming that because there's no way to test the theory, it's closer to magic or faith than science. And despite growing interest from physicists and amateurs alike, superstring theory may always suffer from an accessibility problem. After all, the idea that tiny vibrating strings govern both a neutrino's mass and a star's motion emerges from complex equations used to describe subatomic forces. These equations are so complicated that no one can state them precisely.

Greene, who teaches at Columbia and is a leader in the field, skirts the issue, presenting the underlying concepts metaphorically. He explains curled dimensions with the help of a universe on a garden hose; he summarizes perturbation theory (which studies how close approximations can get to the truth) with cost overruns at the garage. Such metaphors often provide beauty and power to otherwise impenetrable concepts. Elsewhere, one can see Greene straining to find a way not to use equations, or papering over embarrassing holes in the theory that claims to have the power to explain everything. But if string theory has an unimpressive list of accomplishments thus far--its main claim is that it predicted gravity--it has an enthusiastic and effective advocate in Greene. Its potential, he writes, is enormous: "many aspects of nature that might appear to be arbitrary technical details . . . arise from essential and tangible aspects of the geometry of the universe. . . . Far from being accidental details, the properties of nature's building blocks are deeply entwined with the fabric of space and time." Even if the universe turns out to be less elegant than Greene envisions, his book is a rewarding read and a fine introduction to what has been a rather arcane field. Einstein would approve. Order from

--Jeffrey Winters

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