Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Dark Side of Science (From a Scientist and an Animal Lover)

I have three dogs. These adorable, goofy, loyal, sweet, trouble-making, unpredictable, intelligent, heart-warming little critters aren't pets to me, they're my family. Family made all the more precious by their devastatingly short lifespans and the knowledge that one day, far too soon, they won't be with me any longer. So as a scientist, it kills me to see things like this, and be reminded of the dark side of what it is we do. Watch the below video, and when you're done bawling your eyes out (I know I did) please read the comments below.

The plea at the end of the video asks us to only buy "cruelty-free" products. I wish it were that simple. Things that were tested on beagles include not only your mascara, but also your heart medication. Are you willing to die so that these dogs may live? Honest answer, please.

I don't have a simple solution. Actually, I do. It's in The Death Row Complex, the forthcoming prequel to The Vesuvius Isotope. But Congress doesn't seem to think much of it. Meanwhile, we still make medicines with animal research.

For the record, it's almost always mice and rats we work on. (And by "we," I mean everyone who works in biotechnology or the pharmaceutical business.) This doesn't bring me any comfort, personally, because I also happen to think mice and rats are adorable and I have owned several as pets. Which actually means family members, as noted above. So I don't feel great knowing that it's mostly mice and rats that are used for animal research. But it gets worse.

Most therapeutics don't make it to market without also going through at least some work in non-human primates as well. That means at least a few monkeys have been killed for every antibiotic, every headache remedy, and every birth control pill or erectile disfunction pill you take in your lifetime. Not to mention the ones you may need for diabetes, for cancer, for cardiovascular disease.

Which brings me back to the dogs. A dog's heart is remarkably similar to a person's. That is why heart research is frequently done in dogs. Beagles are the species for this, every time. A long time ago, I was offered a job in heart research. I even got a scholarship from the American Heart Association. I turned it down when I saw my first (and last) open heart surgery being performed on a captive beagle that would be euthanized shortly thereafter. Choke...

But what's the alternative? As a scientist, I say, there isn't one. As the Mom of three dogs, I would cast my vote for just about anything.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Paradox of Cairo Nightlife

Cairo at Night
I have blogged extensively about the nuances of traveling as a westerner in Egypt, and I think that Cairo exemplifies these nuances. In contrast to the Disney-esque atmosphere of Luxor, you will find a much stricter Muslim tradition in lower Egypt. Few locals wear short sleeves, and nobody wears short pants, despite the blazing temperature of Egypt in the fall. The women in Cairo are much more inclined to cover their hair, the subway features cars strictly for women, and you will see considerably more niqabi in Cairo than in upper Egypt.

Nile Cruise Ships Along the Corniche
So it's quite a surprise when the sun goes down over the Nile that first night, and the atmosphere spontaneously morphs into a more exotic version of Las Vegas. Suddenly, gone is the ubiquitous, beautiful, haunting call to prayer that hangs over Cairo all day with the smog. Instead, the thumping, pulsating beat of techno music blasts through the streets like a massive heartbeat, and it takes a moment to realize that yes, the lyrics are usually in Arabic.

Much of the energy is rippling from cruise ships docked along the Nile. Touts will step off of the ships onto the streets and try to persuade you that their Nile Cruise is the best. They offer belly dancers, sheesha, and yes, even alcohol.

Observing the paradoxical night-life in this 90% Muslim city, you become acutely aware of the conundrum facing the Egyptian people. In a country where tourism is the life-blood for almost everyone, does one stick to one's beliefs and starve to death? Or does one close an eye to the Qaran and entertain the western world? While I can only assume what the choice would be, to anyone actually given a choice, the undulating nightlife in the Cairo streets underscores the reality the Egyptians are entrenched in. Enjoy the atmosphere while you are here, my western friends, but please, tip well. They need it.

Friday, January 31, 2014

The Vesuvius Isotope Photo Tour

Here's The Vesuvius Isotope photo tour, which I'll be showing live at some of my upcoming events. This is literally a trip through the novel from beginning to end, excluding the Black's Beach footage to keep it rated PG. No spoilers here, but I'm hoping that you'll look at these and wonder what the heck all of those pics have to do with the story! Enjoy...

Purchase the novel here!

Friday, January 24, 2014

Discounted! The Vesuvius Isotope

In honor of the upcoming release of Pompeii: The Movie, I've decided to make The Vesuvius Isotope available at a drastically discounted price. Brush up on your Pompeii and Herculaneum history, while also enjoying an action-packed romp through Italy and Egypt, for up to 70% off! That's right. I'm offering the print book for just $9.99 from my website or the Murder Lab site only (a 25% discount) and the e-book from KindleNook, or Kobo for $2.99 (a 70% discount.) These prices will go the way of Pompeii when the movie comes out on February 21.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Tour Through Coptic Cairo

Slowly, I stroll through the dusty, crooked streets of the birthplace of Egyptian Christianity. Churches and convents line both sides of the streets. I wander into a church and am greeted by an ornate interior of gold and ivory. An old man is at its altar, lighting candles. I leave him alone and return to the street...

No visit to Cairo is complete without a trip through the ancient walled city of Coptic Cairo. Step off of the Metro at the Mari Girgis Station and cross beneath the archway of the citadel. There, you'll pay a small entrance fee for access to the entire walled city.

Near the entrance to the city are the Church of St. George, the Coptic Museum and the Church of St. Sergius. You'll also see the Roman tower on your right hand side before swinging around toward the Convent of St. George. Because some of these old buildings are still actively used by Cairo's Coptic community, you may see visitors lighting candles or praying. Otherwise, you are free to wander in and out and take photos.

The Coptic Museum is a must-see, featuring art from early Christianity throughout Egypt and the Near East. At the Convent of St George, one can be wrapped in chains like the saint himself.

At the far end of the main street, past the Ben Ezra Synagogue and the Church of St Barbara, are two enormous cemeteries. Historically Greek Catholic and Greek Orthodox, you'll find headstones in a myriad of languages. Some of these are quite ancient and others fairly new. Some are quite modest, others very elaborate. Readers of The Vesuvius Isotope should look for the headstone of Selena Zenobi.

Back near the entrance to the citadel, follow the road along the wall of the citadel to the Hanging Church. Named for nothing that has to do with hanging people, this church is one of the most ornate in the city. Read more about it here.

Follow the trail of the holy journey through Egypt, from Upper Egypt all the way north to Alexandria and across the Sinai peninsula.

Protagonist Katrina Stone races through Coptic Cairo on her quest to solve Cleopatra's last riddle in The Vesuvius Isotope, a novel by Kristen Elise. Purchase The Vesuvius Isotope here.

For more about traveling alone through Coptic Cairo, click here. For more about traveling alone through Egypt, visit

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Bloopers! Dioscorides was Greek

It has come to my attention that I published a little fib in The Vesuvius Isotope. Below is an astute e-
mail from reader Zoe:

Hello Dr. Elise -

I am presently reading your great novel 'The Vesuvius Isotope' and I am very much enjoying the history you have incorporated into your story.

Unfortunately I did not make note of what chapter or what page you first mention Dioscorides but if I am not mistaken you indicate that he was a Roman. I, being of Greek descent, immediately realized that that was not a Roman/Italian name because of the ending letters. Dioscorides was a Greek. It may too late to correct that in your printing and you may very well have already had this brought to your attention but being a proud Greek, I felt I had to make this comment to you. I tried in vain to go back to locate where I read the 'Roman' statement but I was unsuccessful. If my memory is serving me incorrectly on having read that description on this then please forgive me.

Once again, thank you for this very informative and adventurous tale.


Zoe: Thank you for the e-mail and for noting a blooper in the novel. You are correct! Dioscorides was of Greek descent, but he practiced in Rome, which is why I referred to him (erroneously) as Roman. You have a great nose for names! It is, indeed, too late to correct the flub in the current printing of Vesuvius, but it can be corrected in future additions. Cheers,

Friday, December 20, 2013

Unlocking the Scrolls of Herculaneum

From BBC News...

The British Museum's 2013 show of artefacts from the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, buried in ash during an explosive eruption of Mount Vesuvius, was a sell-out. But could even greater treasures - including lost works of classical literature - still lie underground?
For centuries scholars have been hunting for the lost works of ancient Greek and Latin literature. In the Renaissance, books were found in monastic libraries. In the late 19th Century papyrus scrolls were found in the sands of Egypt. But only in Herculaneum in southern Italy has an entire library from the ancient Mediterranean been discovered in situ.
On the eve of the catastrophe in 79 AD, Herculaneum was a chic resort town on the Bay of Naples, where many of Rome's top families went to rest and recuperate during the hot Italian summers.
It was also a place where Rome's richest engaged in a bit of cultural one-upmanship - none more so than Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, a politician and father-in-law of Julius Caesar...

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Pompeii! New Movie Coming February 2014

From beneath the ruins of Mt. Vesuvius, a two-thousand-year-old document has been unearthed. It is the only text ever attributed to the secretive, ambitious, and ruthless last pharaoh of Egypt. Protagonist Katrina Stone races through the ruins of Pompeii on her quest to solve Cleopatra's last riddle in The Vesuvius Isotope, a novel by Kristen Elise. Purchase The Vesuvius Isotope here.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Daughters of the Nile, a new novel by Stephanie Dray

Daughters of the Nile slide
From critically acclaimed historical fantasy author, Stephanie Dray comes the long-awaited new tale based on the true story of Cleopatra's daughter.
After years of abuse as the emperor’s captive in Rome, Cleopatra Selene has found a safe harbor. No longer the pitiful orphaned daughter of the despised Egyptian Whore, the twenty year old is now the most powerful queen in the empire, ruling over the kingdom of Mauretania—an exotic land of enchanting possibility where she intends to revive her dynasty. With her husband, King Juba II and the magic of Isis that is her birthright, Selene brings prosperity and peace to a kingdom thirsty for both. But when Augustus Caesar jealously demands that Selene’s children be given over to him to be fostered in Rome, she’s drawn back into the web of imperial plots and intrigues that she vowed to leave behind. Determined and resourceful, Selene must shield her loved ones from the emperor’s wrath, all while vying with ruthless rivals like King Herod. Can she find a way to overcome the threat to her marriage, her kingdom, her family, and her faith? Or will she be the last of her line?
Read the Reviews
"A stirring story of a proud, beautiful, intelligent woman whom a 21st century reader can empathize with. Dray's crisp, lush prose brings Selene and her world to life." ~RT Book Reviews
"The boldest, and most brilliant story arc Dray has penned..." ~Modge Podge Reviews
"If you love historical fiction and magical realism, these books are for you." ~A Bookish Affair
Read an Excerpt
Below me, six black Egyptian cobras dance on their tails, swaying. I watch their scaled hoods spread wide like the uraeus on the crown of Egypt. Even from this height, I'm paralyzed by the sight of the asps, their forked tongues flickering out between deadly fangs. I don't notice that I'm gripping the balustrade until my knuckles have gone white, all my effort concentrated upon not swooning and falling to my death.
And I would swoon if I were not so filled with rage. Someone has arranged for this. Someone who knows what haunts me. Someone who wants to send me a message and make this occasion a moment of dread. My husband, the king must know it, for he calls down, "That's enough. We've seen enough of the snake charmer!"
There is commotion below, some upset at having displeased us. Then Chryssa hisses, "Who could think it a good idea to honor the daughter of Cleopatra by coaxing asps from baskets of figs?"
The story the world tells of my mother's suicide is that she cheated the emperor of his conquest by plunging her hand into a basket where a venomous serpent lay in wait. A legend only, some say, for the serpent was never found. But I was there. I brought her that basket. She was the one bitten but the poison lingers in my blood to this day. I can still remember the scent of figs in my nostrils, lush and sweet. The dark god Anubis was embroidered into the woven reeds of the basket, the weight of death heavy in my arms. I can still see my mother reach her hand into that basket, surrendering her life so that her children might go on without her. And I have gone on without her.
I have survived too much to be terrorized by the emperor's agents or whoever else is responsible for this.
If it is a message, a warning from my enemies, I have already allowed them too much of a victory by showing any reaction at all. So I adopt as serene a mask as possible. My daughter blinks her big blue eyes, seeing past my facade. "Are you frightened, Mother? They cannot bite us from there. The snakes are very far away."
I get my legs under me, bitterness on my tongue. "Oh, but they're never far enough away."
Daughters of the Nile cover
Available now in print and e-book!

Available now in print and e-book!

Stephanie Dray Headshot
STEPHANIE DRAY is a bestselling, multi-published, award-winning author of historical women’s fiction and fantasy set in the ancient world. Her critically acclaimed historical series about Cleopatra’s daughter has been translated into more than six different languages, was nominated for a RITA Award and won the Golden Leaf. Her focus on Ptolemaic Egypt and Augustan Age Rome has given her a unique perspective on the consequences of Egypt's ancient clash with Rome, both in terms of the still-extant tensions between East and West as well as the worldwide decline of female-oriented religion. Before she wrote novels, Stephanie was a lawyer, a game designer, and a teacher. Now she uses the transformative power of magic realism to illuminate the stories of women in history and inspire the young women of today. She remains fascinated by all things Roman or Egyptian and has-to the consternation of her devoted husband-collected a house full of cats and ancient artifacts.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A Tour Through the Cairo Egyptian Museum

It really is one of the "greatest historical treasures of the world." The Cairo Egyptian museum, or Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, is home to hundreds of thousands of artifacts excavated from the ancient sites around Cairo and throughout Egypt.
Cairo Egyptian Museum
Egyptian Museum Facade
Tourists flock to the funeral mask of King Tut and the vast collection of human mummies, two of which were, sadly, destroyed in 2011's Arab Spring.

Tut Funeral Mask
Human Mummies
I, on the other hand, was more interested in the papyrus and coin rooms, the incredible Fayoum portraits and the tribute to mummified animals.

Pictures are not allowed, and I had to check my camera at the door (along with my bag,) but I still had my iPhone. Below are the blurred shots I captured while looking out for security, along with some better pics of each pulled from Google Images.
Fayoum Portraits Via iPhone

Fayoum Portraits Cairo Egyptian Museum

Mummified Croc Via iPhone

Mummified Crocs Cairo Egyptian Museum

The museum is poorly annotated and most of the signage is in Arabic, so it might be helpful to buy a guidebook before heading through. It's also not air-conditioned, and in the summer you'll find yourself surrounded by about ten thousand sweaty tourists. When you arrive, head to the gift shop on your left and pick up a guidebook. Then you go through metal detectors that beep every time someone passes through them, but the guards just wave everyone through anyway.

In The Vesuvius Isotope, protagonist Katrina Stone is forced to make a mad dash through the museum without ever getting to see the massive Greco-Roman area that she had set out for. She does, however, get to spend some quality time in the bathroom.

Protagonist Katrina Stone races through the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities on her quest to solve Cleopatra's last riddle in The Vesuvius Isotope, a novel by Kristen Elise. Purchase The Vesuvius Isotope here.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The *New* Great Library of Alexandria

Have you ever dreamed of wandering through the Great Library of Ancient Alexandria? Unrolling a papyrus scroll written by Cleopatra in one of the nine languages she spoke? Hob-knobbing with Aristotle in the world's first think tank?

Well, you can. Sort of.

Today's visitor to Alexandria, Egypt can visit the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a modern-day recreation of the great library of the ancients. And this creation is definitely worth a visit. But for those who can't toddle off to Egypt this week, I offer here a photo tour instead.

One can spend an hour or more exploring the breathtaking architecture of the library. The building is modern and imposing, and it was designed to appear as if the library is sinking into the sea - a nod to the loss of its ancient counterpart. Indeed, one must cross a short bridge to access the library, passing by the "sinking" dome and approaching the tall structure.
The Library at Alexandria, Egypt
Exterior Spires
The Sinking Library
Waking Across the Bridge to the Library
The dome of the planetarium is prominently visible from the outside (although no photos were allowed from the inside!) Here we see the planetarium dome and the library's bust of Alexander the Great.

Planetarium of the Library
Bust of Alexander the Great with Planetarium Dome
The granite walls surrounding the library are inscribed in hundreds of languages. Even Cleopatra would have been awed! We see another tribute to literacy in the "big read" book bench, which happens to be open to a page written in Arabic on the left page and English on the right page. Within the library, the theme continues: one can find a manuscript museum and a legendary rare books collection. There is even a Nobel collection, dedicated exclusively to the works of Nobel laureates like our own Jeff Wilson.

The library features several tributes to the science of the ancients, including a planetarium, a History of Science Museum, and this marble sundial (below.) 
Marble Sundial

Arabic and English Descriptions of Sundial
English Description of Sundial
The interior of the library is bright and modern, taking advantage of the Mediterranean sun as a natural light source through a crystalline network of windows. The "library" is so much more than a library, featuring several art galleries, an IMAX theater, a museum of antiquities, an Alexandria and Mediterranean research center, and a center for Hellenistic studies, among many other resources.
Interior of the Library
The Library at Dusk

The ancient library of Alexandria, its modern counterpart, and a trail of clues in Alexandria lead protagonist Katrina Stone toward the answer to Cleopatra's last riddle in The Vesuvius Isotope, a novel by Kristen Elise. Purchase The Vesuvius Isotope here.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Lighthouse, the Library, and the Caesarium of Alexandria, Egypt

Reconstruction of the Lighthouse of Alexandria

The lighthouse of Alexandria, Egypt was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was located at the tip of the island of Pharos, at the mouth of the Eastern Harbor of Alexandria. Detailed descriptions in ancient literature give us a complete picture of the library's architecture, size and scale.

Fort Qaitbey, Alexandria fortress located at the site where the ancient lighthouse once stood

Today's visitor to Alexandria finds Fort Qaitbey instead, at the tip of the crescent-shaped island. From Midan Saad Zagloul, the square once dedicated to the offspring of Cleopatra, one can gaze across the harbor to the castle.

Midan Saad Zagloul

A tribute to Cleopatra's patron goddess, Isis, still sits in Midan Saad Zagloul.
Statue of Isis in Midan Saad Zagloul.
Photo credit: Virtual Tourist
Unlike the lighthouse, we know very little of the architecture of the legendary Great Library of Alexandria. Today, a visitor to Alexandria can visit the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a modern library designed to appear as if it is sinking into the sea - a tribute to the loss of the ancient library and its thousands upon thousands of stolen books.

The New Library of Alexandria
The Library Slipping into the Sea
I glanced out again at Fort Qaitbay, and then I turned to look behind me at the square. Beyond it were modern buildings, buildings that had been erected where the ancient library of Alexandria once stood. The lighthouse would have been visible from the library, and vice versa.

The lighthouse. The library. The Caesarium. All three lost to time.

But in my mind, the three ancient monuments appeared before me in all their grandeur, and I felt a chill through the warm Mediterranean air. Because I suddenly knew what I needed to do.

“I’m sorry, Jeff,” I said aloud.

I stepped across the square and into a pharmacy, where I purchased a bottle of sleeping pills.

-Excerpt from The Vesuvius Isotope, a novel by Kristen Elise. 
Purchase The Vesuvius Isotope here.