CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — GREEK mythology has it that Perseus slew the fearsome snake-haired Medusa and saved princess Andromeda from a sea monster. Today, Perseus is alive and well in the form of an adventurous computer database that with a click of a button helps students navigate through the complex and often intimidating morass of ancient Greek literature, linguistics, history, and art.
Perseus is an "electronic library" that in its initial version includes all major Greek texts and translations, over 5,000 landscape and architectural images, photographs of 500 artifacts, site plans for numerous Greek sites, and color videos. A catalog of 140 Greek vases offers at least 30 different views of each piece.
"All of sudden you've really broken through some barriers that constrain what you can do with printed publications," says Gregory Crane, associate professor of classics at Harvard University here in Cambridge and editor in chief of Perseus.
Using a Macintosh II, a compact-disc player, and a videodisc player, Perseus democratizes learning, Dr. Crane says, through its interactive "hypermedia" environment, which puts mountains of information at anyone's fingertips.
Perseus testifies to growing interest in hypermedia technology among higher education faculties. As a teaching and research tool, hypermedia "is a very powerful instrument for cutting across disciplinary boundaries," says Robert Jones, professor of sociology and director of the Hypermedia Laboratory at the University of Illinois in Urbana- Champaign.
Perseus is "exceptional," says Dr. Jones, because of "the ease with which a novice student of ancient Greece can get answers to his or her questions simply by browsing around in hundreds of megabytes of information."
Institutional skepticism of the technology abounds, adds Jones, and even Crane says, "It's communicated to you in no uncertain terms that this rocks the boat."
But officials connected with the project say they are hopeful Perseus will become popular, because it rides on the availability of easy-to-use, inexpensive technology.
"The number of resources available on optical disc has been growing fairly rapidly, as has the use of video in classrooms," comments Stephen Ehrmann, program officer for interactive technologies at the Annenberg Project of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The corporation is pumping more than $2 million into Perseus.
"It pulls together resources which have never been collected together before - let alone accessible to undergraduates," Dr. Ehrmann adds. He estimates that Perseus software (one CD ROM and one 12-inch videodisc) will be sold for less than $200. Yale University Press is scheduled to publish the first edition of Perseus in December.
In his office, Crane demonstrated how Perseus could be used. If students are studying the Greek poem "Olympian I," by Pindar, they can read the Greek text and its translation, side by side, on the computer. Using a built-in 35,000-word lexicon and small encyclopedia, says Crane, they can quickly analyze Greek words and their meanings, even if they don't know the language.
Crane pointed out one reference Pindar makes to Olympia, where the Olympic games took place. Using Perseus's atlas, students can zoom in on the region and view color Landsat photos. Drawings of the archeological site plan are available at the click of a button, as are photographic views from various vantage points, creating "an uncanny sense of having walked there," Crane says. Students can also watch a short video about the site.
WITH numerous clicks of a hand-held "mouse," Crane called up a Greek vase and created a montage of rotated views and enlarged details of the piece. "Usually, [print] publications can't afford to have enough pictures, and they're not very detailed," says Crane. "You can really start to ask questions of these objects, which before, you could do only in the museums themselves."
An obvious advantage of Perseus is the efficiency of working in an all-electronic environment. Students can move smoothly between media, drawing connections between them.
"A lot of logistical 'garbage' which makes it hard for students to ask questions and pursue problems gets eliminated or vastly reduced," Crane says. "In the same hour of time, instead of asking 10 questions, they can ask 30."
Hypermedia technology also takes the "grunt work" out of teaching - "the repetitive, boring stuff that has to be done, but which chews into a teacher's time," he says. If students use the computer, "it changes the nature of class, because when I talk, it's at a higher level."
But what does Perseus do for learning?
"That's what we're struggling with right now," admits Crane. "We're trying to get a handle on how this affects what goes on in the student's head." One thing is certain, he says: It is now possible for people with minimal training to get further into a subject than was physically possible before.
A group of sophomores were asked to look up everything Pindar wrote about wealth, see how he defined it, and write papers on their findings. "What they came up with, in many ways, looked like publishable articles in journals," Crane says.
Perseus "is a tremendously rich resource," says Charles Ess, an associate professor of philosophy and religion at Drury College in Springfield, Mo., who is currently testing the Perseus software. He says he thinks many educators will want to use this database on ancient Greece, "because you can use it in the context of so many liberal arts courses."
Dr. Ess says he is not convinced that hypermedia presents a problem-free road to better learning. Still, "it's exciting stuff," he says. "It forces you to rethink how you teach. That can be bothersome for some, but I've found it very liberating and very refreshing."