Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Next Age of Discovery

The Wall Street Journal reports that "In a 21st-century version of the age of discovery, teams of computer scientists, conservationists and scholars are fanning out across the globe in a race to digitize crumbling literary treasures."

There seem to be plenty of interesting and informative finds out there:
A Benedictine monk from Minnesota is scouring libraries in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Georgia for rare, ancient Christian manuscripts that are threatened by wars and black-market looters; so far, more than 16,500 of his finds have been digitized. This summer, a professor of computer science at the University of Kentucky plans to test 3-D X-ray scanning on two papyrus scrolls from Pompeii that were charred by volcanic ash in 79 A.D. Scholars have never before been able to read or even open the scrolls, which now sit in the French National Institute in Paris.

I don't think the writer has framed the story quite right: this is no race against time. Yes, the manuscripts surely are crumbling. At any time, a fire or a robbery could take out a potentially world-shattering text. But I note the high level of enthusiasm and excitement. I think people are just giddy to use cool gizmos and perhaps find "the text that changes everything":
Recently, multispectral imaging has gotten much less expensive, allowing researchers to take their equipment into the field. The next frontier, researchers say, is using CAT scan and X-ray technology to read brittle scrolls without even unrolling them.

This summer, a new project to decode ancient manuscripts with multispectral imaging will begin at the University of Michigan, Berkeley, and Columbia. The project, led by scholars from Brigham Young, will scan 400 papyrus pieces. Among the specimens: papyrus fragments from rolls that were stuffed inside mummified Egyptian crocodiles in the 1st century B.C., which are thought to contain ancient legal documents, contracts and perhaps literary works. Their efforts could reveal text that scholars have been laboring to read for decades, including a partially obscured play by Euripides.

"It's being called a second Renaissance," says Todd Hickey, a curator of papyri at the University of California, Berkeley, which has some 26,000 pieces of papyrus, many still unread. "It's revealing things that we didn't have a hope of reading in the past."

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