LIANE HANSEN, Host:
Since ancient times, humankind has sought news it can use. In the 21st century, books, computer programs and other delivery systems offer countless how-to guides. Although news didn't travel as fast during early Greek and Roman times, there was a wealth of information on remedies, precautions and inventions to make ancient life easier. Some were based on science, others on superstition.
A C: And Other Human Stories of Ancient Science and Superstition." She joins us from member station KVPR in Fresno, California. Welcome to the program.
VICKI LEON: Thank you so much.
HANSEN: What does mellify mean?
LEON: Well, mellify means to embalm in honey. And you might want to know why I decided to call my book that. I had a specific person in mind: Alexander the Great. He was a terrifically organized guy, and he left pre-need funeral instructions. He wanted to be embalmed in honey, a process called mellification.
HANSEN: Now, what was it about honey that made it good for embalming?
LEON: Well, actually, it's been proven to be just as good these days. In fact, some scientists in Iraq proved that mellification does work. It preserves tissue very well and, in fact, has some particular uses and benefits for burn victims, for example.
HANSEN: Now, is it the Egyptians had 900 remedies with honey?
LEON: They had at least that many. And, of course, the Greek and Romans often copied the venerable Egyptian recipes, so they had a number of them as well.
HANSEN: And it could also be toxic, though?
LEON: Oh, yes. You're talking about the mad honey...
HANSEN: The mad honey.
LEON: ...which I think is a delightful term. When bees gather nectar for honey, if they happen to be in an area where there are laurel and rhododendron, the nectar, the honey is somewhat toxic. It's not toxic in - well, it could kill you but mostly it just sort of intoxicates you. And several of the Greek armies were felled by episodes of finding honey or else having enemies plant this mad honey in their path. And upon eating it, you know, they fell into this intoxicated state.
HANSEN: You write about what you call The Mac of the Millennium - it's an analog computer that sprang from the mind of a nova bright thinker in ancient Greece. Explain what it was. I don't think I can even pronounce the name.
LEON: One of them is a Saros cycle that allows for eclipse prediction, and that was the main point of it, to predict solar and lunar eclipses, because they were a big deal in the ancient world.
HANSEN: You write about the first surround sound, and without the ancient Greeks there would be no Hollywood Bowl. What were some of their acoustic tricks?
LEON: And so that has been one of the revelations that's come out of studying these seemingly simple ancient devices. And in this case, you know, an entire system.
HANSEN: It's fascinating when you're writing about the ancient world because the beginnings of real science coincided with the birth of Greek philosophy. Did the two compliment one another or were there problems? I mean, it seems a lot of thinking was done in the areas of chemistry and botany and astronomy and physics, but why wasn't more scientific progress made?
LEON: In fact, given the very simple tools that they had, I thought they made remarkable strides.
HANSEN: Vicki Leon is the author of "How to Mellify A Corpse: And Other Human Stories of Ancient Science and Superstition." She joined us from member station KVPR in Fresno, California. Thanks so much.
LEON: Thank you, Liane.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.