The Particle Accelerator Experiment That Might Rewrite the Historical past of the Printing Press


I am a bit nervous. In my proper hand, I am holding a priceless piece of human historical past. And that is not hyperbole. It is a weathered black binder, emblazoned with gold textual content on the entrance. In Gothic-style textual content it reads “A Leaf of The Gutenberg Bible (1450 – 1455).”

Sure, that Gutenberg Bible. These authentic pages, that date again to the Fifteenth century, have come to the SLAC Nationwide Accelerator Laboratory in Northern California to be blasted by a high-powered X-ray. Together with the Bible pages, a Fifteenth-century Korean Confucian textual content, a web page from the Canterbury Tales written within the 14th century and different western and jap paperwork are set to endure the barrage. Researchers are hoping that inside the pages of those priceless paperwork lie clues to the evolution of 1 humankind’s most vital 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 making an attempt to study is the fundamental composition of the inks, the papers, and maybe any residues of the typefaces which are utilized in these Western and Jap printings,” stated imaging guide Michael Toth.

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


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

Jacqueline Ramseyer Orrell/SLAC Nationwide Accelerator Laboratory

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

To place it extra plainly: Was Gutenberg’s invention based mostly, no less than partly, on Jap know-how? That is the place the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Mild 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 an enormous ring formed tunnel as a way to generate X-rays (versus SLAC’s extra well-known linear particle accelerator, the two-mile lengthy 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 the SSRL’s thinner-than-a-human-hair X-ray beam at a block of textual content on a doc, researchers can create two-dimensional chemical maps that element parts current in every pixel. It is a approach referred to as X-ray fluorescence imaging, or XRF.


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

SLAC Nationwide Accelerator Laboratory

“The atoms in that pattern emit gentle, and we are able to observe which parts that gentle will need to have come from on the periodic desk,” stated Minhal Gardezi, a PhD scholar engaged on the challenge. 

Although the SSRL’s X-rays are highly effective, they do not harm the paperwork, giving scientists a holistic view of the molecules that make up the traditional texts. Additionally they give them the power to search for hint metals that historians say shouldn’t be within the ink. That may point out they most likely got here from the printing press themselves. “That may imply we might study one thing concerning the alloys which had been utilized in Korea and by Gutenberg after which possibly later by others,” Bergmann stated.


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

Mike Toth/SLAC Nationwide Accelerator Laboratory

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

Nevertheless, each scientist I talked with on the challenge made it clear that even when similarities between the 2 paperwork are discovered, it would not definitively show one know-how influenced the opposite.

The paperwork are on mortgage from personal collections, the Stanford Library and archives in Korea. The analysis at SLAC is a component of a bigger challenge led by UNESCO referred to as From Jikji to Gutenberg. The findings shall be introduced on the Library of Congress subsequent April.


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