Thursday, September 13, 2007

How to read a closed book

I love hearing about new tools and techniques for research. Many areas of science and history can only be expanded by squeezing more information out of the same evidence. Unfortunately, many research techniques are destructive.

For example, Carbon 14 dating requires burning up a sample of the object to be dated. When the technique was first developed, few museums were willing to carve off chunks of their collections to be tested. As a result, it took years to build up a large enough database of tested objects to properly calibrate the technique. This lack of a solid baseline is the reason why so many dates from the early days of C-14 dating have had to be revised, much to the glee of creationists and other C-14 skeptics. Fortunately, as time went by, the technique was improved to need smaller and smaller samples and now the curators of most ancient finds are willing to send in enough material for dating.

Another problem lies in old manuscripts. We all know the scene in the movies where the intrepid archaeologist has just a second to read something before it turns to dust. In real life, this usually occurs when archaeologists or historians try to open a scroll or old book. For a variety of reasons, many old manuscripts cannot be flexed in any way. Sometimes the problem lies in the nature of the paper--papyrus is woven grass and becomes hopelessly brittle. Sometimes the problem lies in what has been done to the paper--iron gall ink, used since the Middle Ages actually burns through the paper. For these reasons, many libraries and museums have collections of scrolls and books that they are afraid to open.

Now the University of Cardiff has come to their rescue. According to a piece on today's BBC, U of C scientists have developed a technique, using their Diamond Sychrotron, that can read manuscripts without opening them. The technique uses a sort of souped up x-ray to find traces of ink in a closed document. The results are then subjected to a computer algorithm which can sort out the different layers and present them for our reading pleasure.

The technique is still in the early stages of development, and a Diamond Sychrotron costs about a half billion dollars, so it's not something your local small college department of library science will be purchasing soon. I also doubt that it will stop archaeologists and historians from wanting to open certain documents. There are many other things to learn from a document than simply what does it say. I expect the early use of the technique will be to establish a backup copy of high value documents, for insurance, before opening them. It will also be useful in deciding which documents are worth the risk of opening. Still, it holds great promise for opening new directions of research. And Diamond Sychrotron is an irresistibly cool name. Look for it show up in forensic cop shows this season.

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