Reviews

Saturday, January 01, 2000


Similarly, the elegant math gallery helps visitors get a grip on the basics of visual perception and mechanics. Its 3-D models lend solidity to abstract topics like projective geometry. Laid on their sides, two cones painted with long, irregular stripes puzzle visitors who approach them from the side; step to the pointy end and view them straight on, and the stripes resolve themselves into images-a face and the word THINK.

The cone display's idea is echoed in the new Seeing Is Deceiving exhibit upstairs, which explores how the eye and the brain collaborate to wring meaning from the huge, messy scribble of color and form called the world. The exhibit focuses on illusions. Grids trick the eye into seeing colors that aren't really there; a whirling vortex makes the viewer's visual field writhe long after the disk has stopped spinning. The visual perception exhibits, in turn, shed light on displays in Seeing the Unseen, down the hall. Camouflage, for example, works best when an animal keeps still-as museum-goers know if they've played with perception displays about motion and peripheral vision.

Some of the new exhibits provide the computer stations that have become de rigueur in science education. They have their merits: Virtual FishTank is an ingenious inquiry into complexity, in computer systems as well as in nature, and Messages explores codes and communication. But these exhibits can feel less compelling than lower-tech toys with actual physical presence. After all, most of us spend enough time staring at video displays.

My favorite gallery was a treasure in 3-D, a beautiful leftover from the museum's past. (Established as a natural history society in 1830, the Boston institution preserves what's most delightful of the old while incorporating what's clever of the new.) Tucked away in a corner, 144 model machines wordlessly explain the fundamentals of mechanical engineering. At the touch of a button, 16 escapements arranged in a grid begin to spin and tick. (Compare the watch escapement, with its pendulum and gear, to the gravity trip-hammer, where a spinning gear lifts and drops a mallet.) Nearby, irregular cams, shaped like teardrops or trefoils, translate rotational motion into a hiccuping back-and-forth shuffle. There are clutches and pulleys, wedges and screws, an entire case of waterpower devices. Watching them move has a calming effect, like a fish tank. Did I say the museum's parts were connected like an ecosystem? Make that an engine.
-Polly Shulman


Movies

The Mysteries of Egypt
A production of The National Geographic Society and Destination Cinema.
Running time: 40 minutes

For Egypt aficionados, there is no shortage of museum exhibitions, books, TV specials, and Web sites. But for a gut-wrenching-and affordable-helicopter ride over the roiling Nile, over sands in Sudan that curve and rise like fleshy backbones, over pyramids poking up from dusty plains, there is only The Mysteries of Egypt. Currently on view at the Boston Museum of Science through March 1 and at other large-format theaters around the country, this hour-long imax movie wouldn't try the patience of a 5-year-old. Expect to be drenched in images, but not much detail.

The film, cast as a tale told by a grandfather to his granddaughter, is a thumbnail sketch of ancient Egyptian grandeur. The story reenacts the discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb in the Valley of the Kings, a vast hidden burial ground 300 miles south of Cairo. In 1922, on his sixth trip to Egypt, English archaeologist Howard Carter stumbled onto the site-and the movie includes some archival black-and-white photos.

Carter's story unfolds before the backdrop of Egyptian culture and history, which flowered some 4,000 years ago on lands annually fertilized by the flooding Nile. Agricultural wealth eventually produced a class of sophisticated scholars: geometers who designed vast 50-story pyramids so perfectly constructed that their peaks align with select stars, and astronomers, who in their devotion to the sun god Ra, fashioned a 365-day calendar with 24-hour days.

The central mystery of Egypt, of course, is its pyramids. Without wheels, pulleys, or iron tools, the Egyptians somehow hauled 50-ton blocks of stone to assemble the pyramids. But their skill with monumental stonework wasn't limited to pyramids. One of the film's most impressive images is an Egyptian Mount Rushmore-70-foot statues of Ramses II carved out of a wall of rock at Abu Simbel, one of the gorgeous temples in Nubia. Created with collaborators as distinguished as Canada's Museum of Civilization, Nova, WGBH, and The National Geographic Society, The Mysteries of Egypt is, disappointingly, as simple as it is stunning. Folding in more anecdotes or information would probably have satisfied adult curiosity without boring the kids. But no matter what your age or experience, the movie will whet your appetite for ancient Egypt. A concurrent exhibition, Virtual Egypt, also on view at the Museum of Science through February 27, will help satisfy it. Visitors can use one of several computer terminals to take virtual tours of the pyramids. And they can view the non-virtual remains of Padihershef, a 41-year-old man who died in Thebes in 650 b.c. (In 1823, a Dutch merchant gave Padihershef's mummified remains to Massachusetts General Hospital.) Once he probably labored on the pyramids; now he is shrunken and blackened with time, wrapped in linen, and adorned with a loose mesh of turquoise beads. Even ordinary Egyptians wanted their remains preserved, so they saved up old sheets and clothing for their mummification and burial in a common grave.Visitors will also get to speculate about two stone objects-about a foot-and-a half high with a small rectangle cut out in the middle-found at the pyramids of Giza. Archaeologists don't know what they are; no others like them have turned up. To me they resembled small windows, but other visitors theorized that they were used as pulleys or fulcrums. Another thought they were animal sculptures, seen from the back. Ah, still more mysteries of Egypt.
-Sarah Richardson


Books

River-Horse: A Voyage Across America
William Least Heat-Moon
HOUGHTON MIFFLIN, $26

Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings
Jonathan Raban
PANTHEON, $26.50

We chuck an awful lot into our waters-and not just the detritus of our acquisitive society. Flowing past riverbanks or tumbling toward shore, water carries with it ancient cultures and modern realities, myth and history. Two new books, William Least Heat-Moon's River-Horse and Jonathan Raban's Passage to Juneau, travel over just such rich waters.

Heat-Moon, whose 1983 Blue Highways recorded his meanderings along America's back roads, had long been intrigued by his atlas's twisted web of rivers. "I began tracing a finger over those twistings in search of a way to cross America in a boat," he writes. In April 1995, he and a companion (one of a changing cast) embarked from Elizabeth, New Jersey, in a boat called Nikawa (from the Osage words for river and horse). Four months and 5,222 miles later, they entered the Pacific off Oregon.

The travelers thread through canals and locks, relics of our industrial past, struggle with rivers made treacherous or impassably shallow by dams, and grieve at the littered waterways and rerouted rivers that testify to the misuse of our country's blessings. Yet always, Heat-Moon revels in our rivers: "I've driven more than a million miles over American highways, but I don't recall loving, for itself, even one road. . . . But a river comes into existence moving, and it grows as it moves, and like a great mother carries within itself lives too varied and numerous for our myriad sciences even yet wholly to enumerate and name."

Passage to Juneau attempts to plumb those deeper philosophical waters. Two years ago, Raban began a solitary journey up the Inside Passage to Alaska. His route retraced British navigator George Vancouver's 18th-century expedition to survey the Pacific coast and search for the fabled Northwest Passage. "To put oneself afloat on a sea-route as old and heavily traveled as the Inside Passage was to join the epic cavalcade of all those, present and past, who'd found some meaning in these waters," he notes.

Raban gracefully weaves together first-person accounts of Vancouver's voyage (Vancouver named Puget Sound and Mount Rainier after crew members Lieutenant Peter Puget and Captain Peter Rainier) and Native American tales with his own reflections on geography, exploration, and the effect of technology on our experience of the natural world. As Raban describes it, the advent of the compass created a "rift in the relationship between man and sea," a rift that has with the advent of GPS technology become a chasm. Raban also sensitively charts his own passage through rough waters: His marriage breaks up and his father dies. It is the confluence of the two-the public and the private-that makes the book unusually moving. In Raban's odyssey, the sea reflects society and self.
-Margaret Foley

Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It
Gina Kolata
FARRAR, STRAUS, AND GIROUX, $25

In fall of 1918, an ungodly sickness coursed across the globe, killing its victims within just three to five days of infection. It would begin with sudden debilitating headaches and chills, then quickly move on to pneumonia, purpling the faces of sufferers and blackening their feet as they drowned in their own body fluids. During one month, it slew nearly 11,000 in Philadelphia; bodies lay piled three and four deep on the city morgue floor. The pandemic reached as far south as Cape Town, South Africa, and as far north as Alaska, killing 72 of the 80 residents of one Inuit village in a week. The illness even interfered with a rival killer, World War I, as it raced through army camps. This plague left a death count of between 20 and 100 million people-more than the Black Death in the 14th century. But the culprit had a name that, up until 1918, had evoked merely moderate alarm rather than widespread terror: influenza, or the common flu.

When the deathfest ended-just a few months after it began-so did the public's collective interest in this mysteriously lethal flu strain (commonly known as the Spanish flu because it was believed to have originated in San Sebastian, Spain). "Some who lived through it said it was so horrible that they would not even talk about it," notes science writer Gina Kolata. "Others tried to put it behind them as another wartime nightmare." Kolata's Flu follows the travails of those scientists and medical researchers who did remember the short-lived killer and have searched for the virus that caused it, in hopes of formulating a vaccine.

Kolata writes a medical detective story that is rich in scientific detail yet accessible to lay readers. The saga begins with the doctors who frantically studied the illness as the pandemic raged. First, they needed to learn whether a bacterium or a virus caused it. In Japan, a group of three doctors made progress with tests in which they deliberately tried to infect healthy volunteers. They poured flu-infected blood and mucus through sieves with holes so tiny that only viruses-and not bacteria, which are larger-could pass through. Then they exposed one group of volunteers to the viruses and another to the bacteria. Only those infected with the virus contracted the flu.

During the 1920s, doctors studied the blood of human survivors of the pandemic and discovered it contained antibodies that blocked swine flu. Perhaps, they thought, the 1918 flu had resulted from a mild form of a human flu that had infected animals, mutated into a deadly form within their cells, and bounced back to people. After the 1930s, researchers could examine the hitherto submicroscopic virus with newly invented electron microscopes. A flu virus, they learned, has the proteins hemagglutinin and neuraminidase protruding from its surface. The former allows the virus to penetrate a body cell so that it can replicate within. The latter enables the newly made viruses to blast the cell open and escape to invade new cells. The degree of virulence of the different flu strains, the researchers found, depends on variations in these proteins.

The most dramatic phase of flu research began in the 1950s with the quest for a 1918-flu virus specimen, and Kolata captures the character and flavor of these personality-driven adventures. They include pathologist Johan Hultin's two daring low-budget expeditions to Alaska to dig up frozen corpses of Inuit victims buried since 1918, as well as the begging-to-be-a-made-for-TV-movie story of geographer Kirsty Duncan, who led a well-publicized but anticlimactic 1998 expedition to recover flu victims' bodies in Norway's permafrost.

Perhaps the most promising ongoing work is that of molecular biologists Jeffrey Taubenberger and Ann Reid. Armed with modern technology and old-fashioned patience, they have reconstructed segments of the 1918 flu's genetic code, using samples from a forgotten trove of lung tissue bits that had languished in the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology's archive for 80 years. If they can locate more of the genetic material, researchers will be one step closer to formulating a vaccine for an illness that could someday reemerge to rival the threat of aids. The 1918 flu may or may not have ended in 1918. Before we find out, scientists would like to ready a crushing offense.
-Rebecca Reisner


RELATED WEB SITES:
Boston Museum of Science's Web site: www.mos.org.


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