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I’m a bit nervous. In my proper hand, I maintain a priceless piece of human historical past. And that is not hyperbole. It is a weathered black folder, adorned with gold textual content on the entrance. A Gothic-style textual content reads “A leaf from the Gutenberg Bible (1450 – 1455)”.

Sure, that Gutenberg Bible. These authentic pages, courting again to the Fifteenth century, have arrived on the SLAC Nationwide Accelerator Laboratory in Northern California to be destroyed by high-powered X-rays. Together with pages from the Bible, a Fifteenth-century Korean Confucian textual content, a web page from the 14th-century Canterbury Tales, and different Western and Japanese paperwork are prepared to resist the bombardment. Researchers hope that inside the pages of those useful paperwork lie clues in regards to the evolution of one among mankind’s most essential innovations: the printing press.

A web page from an authentic Gutenberg Bible (1450-1455 AD) is scanned by a beam from SLAC’s synchrotron particle accelerator.

SLAC Nationwide Accelerator Laboratory

“What we’re attempting to be taught is the basic composition of the inks, the papers, and maybe any residue of the typefaces which are utilized in these Western and Japanese prints,” mentioned Michael Toth, picture guide.

For hundreds of years, it was generally believed that Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press round 1440 AD in Germany. He’s believed to have printed 180 Bibles (fewer than 50 are recognized to exist at the moment). However extra lately, historians have uncovered proof that Korean Buddhists started printing round 1250 AD.


A Gutenberg Bible web page of the First and Second Epistles of Peter, from the mid-Fifteenth century.

Jacqueline Ramseyer Orrell/SLAC Nationwide Accelerator Laboratory

“What shouldn’t be recognized is whether or not these two innovations had been fully separate or whether or not there was a circulation of data,” mentioned Uwe Bergmann, a professor of physics on the College of Wisconsin. “If there was a circulation of data, it might after all have been from Korea, west to Gutenberg.”

To place it extra bluntly: Was Gutenberg’s invention primarily based, at the very least partially, on Japanese expertise? That is the place the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Gentle Supply is available in.


The Spring and Autumn Annals, Confucius, c. 1442.

Jacqueline Ramseyer Orrell/SLAC Nationwide Accelerator Laboratory

A synchrotron is a particle accelerator that fires electrons into a large ring-shaped tunnel to generate X-rays (versus SLAC’s most well-known linear particle accelerator, the two-mile-long LCLS). These X-rays give scientists the power to check the structural and chemical properties of matter. To see precisely how they’re utilizing SSRL to check the priceless paperwork, watch the video above.

By firing SSRL’s hair-thin X-ray beam at a block of textual content in a doc, researchers can create two-dimensional chemical maps detailing the weather current in every pixel. It is a approach known as X-ray fluorescence imaging, or XRF.


The Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Gentle Supply (SSRL) on the SLAC Nationwide Accelerator Laboratory.

SLAC Nationwide Accelerator Laboratory

“The atoms in that pattern emit gentle, and we are able to hint which parts that gentle have to be coming from within the periodic desk,” mentioned Minhal Gardezi, a doctoral pupil engaged on the challenge.

Though SSRL’s X-rays are highly effective, they don’t injury paperwork, giving scientists a holistic view of the molecules that make up historical texts. In addition they give them the power to seek for hint metals that historians say should not be within the ink. That may point out that they in all probability got here from the printing press itself. “That may imply we may be taught one thing in regards to the alloys that had been utilized in Korea and by Gutenberg after which perhaps by others,” Bergmann mentioned.


Scientists can use X-rays to create two-dimensional chemical maps of historical texts like this doc by Confucius.

Mike Toth/SLAC Nationwide Laboratory of Accelerators

In the event that they discover similarities within the chemical compositions of the paperwork, that might contribute to ongoing analysis on the variations and similarities of printing applied sciences, and whether or not there was an alternate of data from East Asian cultures to the West.

Nevertheless, all of the scientists I spoke to in regards to the challenge made it clear that even when similarities had been discovered between the 2 papers, it might not definitively show that one expertise influenced the opposite.

The paperwork are on mortgage from personal collections, the Stanford Library, and archives in Korea. The analysis at SLAC is an element of a bigger UNESCO-led challenge known as From Jikji to Gutenberg. The findings might be offered on the Library of Congress subsequent April.

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The Particle Accelerator Experiment That Could Rewrite the History of the Printing Press

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