ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The Great Pyramid of Egypt is one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world and the only one that's still standing. Now researchers say they've discovered a huge secret space hidden within its walls. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce explains that they found it with the help of a subatomic particle.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: The tiny particles used to probe the Great Pyramid are called muons. Muons are created when cosmic rays from deep space hit atoms in the upper atmosphere. The collisions produce muons, which are constantly raining down and passing through everything, everything from your own body to the Great Pyramid of Giza.
MEHDI TAYOUBI: What is strange for me is to use those very, very small particle for a huge monument like the pyramid.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's Mehdi Tayoubi. He's a researcher in France who wanted to use the best available modern technology to peer into the Great Pyramid. He knew that muon detectors can be used to create an image of whatever is above them. That's because muons move differently through dense stuff like stone than they do through empty space. So his team put muon detection equipment in a room at the bottom of the pyramid called the Queen's Chamber, and they checked to see if they could use muons to discern the two well-known rooms above, the King's Chamber and the Grand Gallery. They saw both. And what's more, they detected what looked like another large, empty space. That was a big surprise.
TAYOUBI: The first reaction was a lot of excitement. But then we knew that it would take us a long, long time and we - that we needed to be very patient in this scientific process.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Their patient science paid off because two different muon detection techniques confirmed that this void was really there. The open space is located above the Grand Gallery and is about as big, a hundred feet long. It could be a tunnel or multiple rooms or maybe just empty space left by the builders to reduce the weight of the stone. Whatever it is, the researchers say in the journal Nature that it's the first major feature to be found inside the pyramid since the 19th century.
PETER DER MANUELIAN: As an architectural discovery, something we didn't know about the interior of the Great Pyramid, it's absolutely big news.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Peter Der Manuelian is an Egyptologist at Harvard University. He cautions that all we know for sure is that there's some empty space.
DER MANUELIAN: So the romantic interpretation and what everyone wants to hear is that this is a hidden room and the king's body is inside or there's grave goods we didn't know about or we're going to learn more about history and all of this. And none of that is responsible speculation at the moment.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But he says the void is so big it looks intentional. And he thinks it warrants further exploration. Now, in the old days, explorers might have just blasted through the walls to get inside.
DER MANUELIAN: Sometimes, unfortunately, dynamite was actually used before the modern science of archaeology came along.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says in these more enlightened times, scientists will surely look for ways to access this space without doing any damage, like slipping tiny robots through cracks or using cameras at the ends of wires. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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