Diamond Synchrotron used to read ancient texts

September 16th, 2007 by Gabriel Bodard

(Spotted by Gregg Schwender and seen in a Diamond Lab press release.)

The ultra-powerful I22 Non-crystalline Diffraction beamline (as best as I understand it an application of the laser particle accellerator that produces highly concentrated pure light for scanning at nanoscopic resolutions) is being applied to the reading of damaged parchment and other ancient and at-risk documents. The synchrotron can analyse the condition of collagen in paper or vellum and determine the patterns of any potentially corrosive ink; this is particularly valuable in cases of very fragile texts, such as those partially eaten away by iron gall ink, or ancient dessicated manuscripts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

I first heard about this story–albeit in very vague terms–at a party last night, and I have to say that my first reaction was disbelief. I assumed that the speaker (neither a digital humanist nor a manuscript scholar) had misunderstood or misrepresented the story of a particle accellerator the size of four football pitches being used to read the Dead Sea Scrolls. Surely the expense involved would just never be spent on something as niche as manuscript studies? (Not to mention that I know excellent results are already being achieved using standard medical imaging technology.) I apologise to my nameless source for my lack of faith. I guess I need reminding occasionally that even people with big and expensive fish to fry can share our obsession with digital and humanistic concerns.

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