Blast to the Past

To decode da Vinci, you need a firm grasp of art. To learn from Archimedes, you need to get your hands on something a bit more sophisticated. Like a synchrotron that accelerates electrons to nearly the speed of light to produce x-rays. At least, that’s what scientists at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center are using to reveal works by the ancient Greek mathematician that are hidden in 1,000-year-old parchment.

Archimedes, who lived in the third century BC, is credited with countless scientific breakthroughs, including developing the concept of pi and inventing an early form of calculus. Most of his works were lost to history until 1906, when scholar John Ludwig Heiberg found some of Archimedes’ treatises hidden in a medieval prayer book. The works had been painstakingly copied from an earlier text by a 10th-century scribe, but in 1229, the pages had been unbound, erased, and used to make the prayer book.

The synchrotron’s 50-micron-wide beam gives the Stanford physicists a way to see through the layers of information. The x-rays cause iron atoms in the original ink to fluoresce, giving off their own x-rays. By scanning the parchment and measuring the x-rays emitted, the researchers can build 600-dpi images of the text, including words hidden under paintings that were added by a forger in the early 20th century. Last year, researchers proved the process could work, and in July they’ll finally start copying pages. “We are reading text that no one has ever read,” says Uwe Bergmann, a staff scientist at SLAC. As Archimedes would have said: Eureka!

- Dylan Tweney

Link: Blast to the Past

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