Pulling teeth by day and devising inventions by night, Ng Tze-chuen, 59, said he organized a team working with Egypt’s former antiquities minister Zahi Hawass to unlock the mystery surrounding the doors blocking two narrow shafts in the pyramid, which is the tomb of the Pharaoh Cheops, also known as Khufu.
“The Chinese have more experience with chopsticks. And a dentist has more experience in gripping with forceps,” said Ng.
“Why Egypt is so interesting, it’s because of the hieroglyphics. It’s like a detective story. It’s all waiting for me to use my grippers.”
Inspired by dental forceps — he has designed 70 of his own to properly grip the tricky crevices of patients’ teeth – Ng said his team will mount tiny grippers on an insect-sized robot expected to gently trek the winding shafts of the pyramid without causing damage to the walls.
The Great Pyramid, the largest and oldest of the three pyramids at Giza, stands 146.5 metres (482 ft) and was completed around 2,500 BC.
The two shafts, which rise from a chamber in the pyramid, and their doors have puzzled archaeologists since they were first discovered in 1872. There is some speculation that Khufu’s burial chamber might lie beyond the doors.
The robot will travel up the shafts, which are so narrow only a small robot could fit, to eventually drill through the two doors. It carries a camera to record what it finds.
The international team, which will take the name Djedi — after the magician with whom Khufu is thought to have consulted for the pyramid layout — plans to use the robot this spring, depending on when the license to do so will be issued, Ng said.
The expansive Giza plateau is a far cry from Ng’s office in a high rise amidst the concrete jungle of Hong Kong, where he said dentists prefer to talk about money and expensive cars rather than ancient Egypt or Mars, another of his passions.
“I want to test my grippers in the most secretive places,” said Ng. “I want to see my tools used on sea, land and space.”
He already has an impressive record and says he was behind the concept to use a rock sampling tool on board the Beagle 2 mission to Mars in 2003.
A self-described maverick as a child, with an adamant allergy to schoolwork, Ng said he was an avid daydreamer who imagined playing marbles on Mars and feels he lived on Mars in a previous incarnation.
“I always think that I was a Martian crab in my past life,” added Ng, whose home is stacked with cat drawings, volumes on ancient Egypt, and books by Carl Sagan. On the walls are plaques and newspaper clippings recognising his contribution to a number of projects.
The Great Pyramid is only one of 10 missions Ng plans to finish before the age of 65. Future plans include a German rover to sample soil on the moon, a submarine rescue cutter, and a search for Cleopatra’s tomb – all scrawled in marker pen on the inside of his mobile phone cover so he is constantly reminded of his dreams.
“Egypt is one of the testing grounds for my toys,” he said.
Even talk of the apocryphal “Curse of the Pharaohs” said to cause the illness or death of anybody who disturbs the mummy of an ancient Egyptian doesn’t faze him – much.
“No matter, curse or no curse, I just want to take a peek. That’s it,” he said. “And then I will run.”