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Philosophical ruminations.
March 26 1998 3:30 AM

News from academe.


Scent of a Woman


Two thousand years after her death, Cleopatra's famously irresistible fragrances are available again. In the late 1980s, a team of Italian and Israeli archaeologists excavated a perfume factory, which dates back to Cleopatra's reign, 30 miles south of the Dead Sea. Among other things, the archaeologists found grinding wheels and vials containing dried pollens. Inspired by these findings as well as by ancient perfume recipes preserved in the writings of Pliny the Elder, a fragrance expert in Florida, Irene Saltzman, has re-created four historic scents for popular use. Saltzman insists her recipes are as authentic as possible. She uses no alcohol or water and imports many of her ingredients from the Middle East. The perfumes are available for $22 each.

More Archaeological Updates

The Italian city of Pompeii, destroyed by a volcanic eruption in A.D. 79, faces further destruction, this time from tourism. The Chicago Tribune reports that the site, which attracts 2 million visitors a year, suffers from extensive vandalism, theft, and chronic funding shortages, as well as from pedestrian wear and tear. Only 17 of the nearly 800 excavated villas are currently open to the public. The Italian government is considering various preservation measures, including corporate sponsorship of individual villas on the site. Fiat, the Italian automobile manufacturer, is interested, but scholars oppose the idea of "privatizing" the national heritage. ... Archaeologists digging under the ruins of the residential palace of Roman tyrant Nero earlier this month stumbled on an astonishing find: a 10-foot-by-6-foot fresco, faded but almost completely intact. The mural appears to be an aerial view of Rome as it looked before the Great Fire of A.D. 64, which the megalomaniacal Nero is believed to have set himself.


Scratch 'n' Sniff


Doctors have developed a smell test for insanity. It has long been known that the breath and body odors of patients suffering from serious mental disorders are distinctive, but now researchers have developed a skin-sweat test for schizophrenia and are working on a breath test. The creators of the test are a group of clinicians at the Highland Psychiatric Research Group in Inverness, Scotland, working alongside sniff-science pioneer Dr. George Dodd, who founded an institute for olfactory research in the 1970s. It was Dodd who helped to develop the first generation of electronic noses, which produce electric signals in the presence of various molecular compounds. Dodd is optimistic that smell tests could become a front-line diagnostic tool. Eventually, he says, the electronic nose could diagnose patients over the telephone.

An Affair to Remember

Presidential friend and White House sex-scandal witness Vernon Jordan has chosen a sometime historian of presidential sexuality to help him write his memoirs. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jordan's collaborator will be legal scholar Annette Gordon-Reed, an untenured professor at New York University's law school, who swept to prominence last year with the publication of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Hailed as the definitive account of Jefferson's long-rumored love affair with the slave Sally Hemings, Gordon-Reed's book argues that historians should give credence to the story of Jefferson's mistress and their six children. (For Slate's take on Gordon-Reed's book, click here.)

And if You Believe That ...


Several con-artist schemes have emerged in academia. One scam, reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education last month, involves a man posing as a director of the Saudi-based Islamic Development Bank or as a professor at a Saudi university. He telephones American scholars and invites them to a conference in Saudi Arabia. Soon, the invitees are being asked to wire money to a courier claiming to be on his way to America to deliver the conference invitations. This man claims that he has been robbed en route and is stranded without money or his plane ticket in an airport somewhere in Europe or the Middle East. Moved by this plea for help, the duped scholar promptly wires the individual a loan of as much as $3,700. After learning that one of its members had been taken in by the scheme, the Middle East Studies Association posted a warning on its Web site. ... Another scheme, reported by the Chronicle last May, was the case of a fast-talking ex-convict who convinced dozens of professors that he was the nephew of esteemed Berkeley race and sports sociologist Harry Edwards. Among those fooled by the Six Degrees of Separation-style setup was Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, who lost $175.


Deleuze for Dodo Birds

High French theory has finally conquered the children's book market. In 1988, postmodernist Jean-François Lyotard published Le Postmoderne expliqué aux enfants (Postmodernism Explained to Children), and the book became a must-read for graduate students everywhere.

A children's book was recently published in France based on excerpts from the works of the even trendier and more arcane Gilles Deleuze, the late French philosopher and celebrated author of Anti-Oedipus. The author is Jacqueline Duhême, a former model for Henri Matisse and pal of Paul Eluard, Pablo Picasso, and Raymond Queneau. Duhême, who today makes her living as a graphic designer and illustrator, calls her book (in French) The Bird of Philosophy. The title was inspired by one of Deleuze's cryptic musings: "Don't you think that philosophy is as pretty as a bird's name?"

Trojan Virus

The deadly Ebola virus may turn out to have a medical use, according to a recent article in Science. A team of virologists at the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor has reportedly identified Ebola's molecular attack strategy and is hoping to exploit it to battle heart disease and cancer. The virus insinuates itself into its victims' bloodstreams by using a glycoprotein (a protein with sugars attached to it) to disable the host's immune response and blood vessels. The researchers would like to affix the Ebola glycoprotein to a harmless virus carrying therapeutic-drug or genetic cocktails.

Rain Forest Crunch

Classical musicians may be contributing to the despoliation of the rain forests. According to Richard F. Fisher, a forest scientist at Texas A&M University, a growing demand for flutes, clarinets, and oboes made of rare tropical wood, including the endangered M'Pingo, grenadilla, and rosewood, is wreaking havoc on the African and South American tropics. Fisher explains the dangers in this month's Scientific American: Harvesters clear-cut wide swaths of forest to reach the remote regions where the species grow. This encourages peasants to move in and begin farming the land. Moreover, the prized trees take 60 years to reach maturity and have proved resistant to plantation cultivation. One enterprising instrument maker, Boosey & Hawkes, has devised a way to deal with the problem: Make the precious wood stretch further. The company's environmentally sensitive oboes and clarinets contain a Hamburger Helper-style mixture of M'Pingo sawdust, carbon fiber, and epoxy glue.