Sunday, October 2, 2022

Experiment with a particle accelerator that could rewrite the history of the printing press

I’m a little confused. In my right hand is a priceless piece of human history. This is no exaggeration. It is a weathered black box with gold text on the front. In the Gothic text it reads “Paper from the Gutenberg Bible (1450 – 1455)”.

of, Which one Gutenberg Bible. This original page, from the 15th century, arrived at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Northern California to be blown up by high-energy X-rays. As well as pages from the Bible, there are 15th-century Korean Confucian texts, pages from the 14th-century Canterbury Tales, and other Western and Eastern documents designed to withstand this attack. Researchers hope that the pages of this priceless document contain evidence of mankind’s most important invention: the development of the printing press.


A page from the original Gutenberg Bible (1450–1455 AD) scanned by light from the SLAC synchrotron particle accelerator.

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

“What we’re trying to learn is the initial composition of the ink, the paper, and possibly the rest of the fonts used in these Western and Eastern prints,” said imaging consultant Michael Toth.

For centuries it has been believed that the printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in Germany around 1440 AD. He is believed to have printed 180 scriptures (less than 50 currently exist). More recently, however, historians have found evidence that Korean Buddhists began printing around AD 1250.


A page from the Gutenberg Bible of the first and second letters of Peter, mid-fifteenth century.

Jacqueline Ramsier Oral / Laboratory Accelerator National SLAC

“It is not known whether these two discoveries are really separate, or whether there is a flow of information,” said Uwe Bergmann, a professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin. “If there is a flow of information, certainly from Korea to the west to Gothenburg.”

To make it clear: Did Gutenberg’s invention depend, at least in part, on Eastern technology? This is where Stanford’s Synchrotron Radiant Light Source enters.


A History of Spring and Autumn, Confucius, c. 1442

Jacqueline Ramsier Oral / Laboratory Accelerator National SLAC

A synchrotron is a particle accelerator that shoots electrons (as opposed to) in a large ring-shaped tunnel to produce X-rays. The most famous linear particle accelerator from SLAC, LCLS 2 millionThese X-rays give scientists the ability to study the structural and chemical properties of matter. Watch the video above to see how they use SSL to study a very valuable document.

By firing an X-ray beam thinner than the SSRL of a human hair at a block of text in a document, the researchers were able to create a 2D chemical map that separates the elements in each pixel. This is a technique called X-ray fluorescence imaging, or XRF.


The Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Light Source (SSRL) at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

“The atoms in the sample emit light, and we can figure out which element on the periodic table the light should come from,” said Minhal Gardisi, a doctoral student working on the project.

Although SSRL X-rays are very powerful, they do not damage documents, giving scholars a comprehensive view of the molecules that make up the ancient texts. It also gave them the ability to discover minerals that historians say should not have been written in ink. This may indicate that they may have come from the printing press itself. “That means we can learn something about the alloy used in Korea and Gutenberg and then probably later by someone else,” Bergman said.


Scientists can use X-rays to create two-dimensional chemical maps from ancient texts such as this Confucian document.

Mike Toth National Accelerator Laboratory / SLAC

If they find similarities in the chemical composition of the document, it could contribute to ongoing research into differences and similarities in printing techniques, and whether information is exchanged between East Asian to Western cultures.

However, every scientist I spoke to on the project explained that even if similarities were found between the two documents, it would not conclusively prove that one technique influenced the other.

The documents were borrowed from private collections, the Stanford Library and Archives in Korea. SLAC’s research is part of a larger project led by UNESCO Calls from Jicji to Gothenburg. The results will be presented to the Library of Congress next April.

Nation World News Desk
Nation World News Desk
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