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

I’m just a little nervous. In my proper hand, I’m holding a priceless piece of human historical past. And that is not hyperbole. It’s 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).”

Yes, that Gutenberg Bible. These unique pages, that date again to the Fifteenth century, have come to the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Northern California to be blasted by a high-powered X-ray. Along 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 unique Gutenberg Bible (1450-1455 AD) is scanned by a beam from SLAC’s synchrotron particle accelerator.

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

“What we’re trying to learn is the elemental composition of the inks, the papers, and perhaps any residues of the typefaces that are used in these Western and Eastern printings,” stated imaging advisor Michael Toth.

For centuries, it was generally believed Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press round 1440 AD in Germany. He’s thought to have printed 180 Bibles (fewer than 50 are recognized to exist right now). But extra just 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 National Accelerator Laboratory

“What is not known is whether those two inventions were completely separate, or whether there was an information flow,” stated Uwe Bergmann, a professor of physics on the University of Wisconsin. “If there was an information flow, it would have been, of course, from Korea, to the west to Gutenberg.”

To put it extra plainly: Was Gutenberg’s invention primarily based, at the least partly, on Eastern know-how? That’s the place the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Light Source is available in. 


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

Jacqueline Ramseyer Orrell/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

A synchrotron is a particle accelerator that fires electrons into an enormous ring formed tunnel to be able 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 components current in every pixel. It’s a way referred to as X-ray fluorescence imaging, or XRF.


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

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

“The atoms in that sample emit light, and we can track which elements that light must have come from on the periodic table,” stated Minhal Gardezi, a PhD scholar engaged on the mission. 

Though 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. They additionally give them the power to search for hint metals that historians say shouldn’t be within the ink. That would point out they in all probability got here from the printing press themselves. “That would mean we could learn something about the alloys which were used in Korea and by Gutenberg and then maybe later by others,” Bergmann stated.


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

Mike Toth/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

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

However, each scientist I talked with on the mission 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 non-public collections, the Stanford Library and archives in Korea. The analysis at SLAC is a component of a bigger mission 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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