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← How I'm discovering the secrets of ancient texts

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Showing Revision 8 created 02/10/2016 by Brian Greene.

  1. On January 26, 2013,
  2. a band of al-Qaeda militants
    entered the ancient city of Timbuktu
  3. on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert.
  4. There, they set fire to a medieval library
    of 30,000 manuscripts
  5. written in Arabic
    and several African languages
  6. and ranging in subject from astronomy
    to geography, history to medicine,
  7. including one book which records
  8. perhaps the first treatment
    for male erectile dysfunction.
  9. Unknown in the West,
  10. this was the collected wisdom
    of an entire continent,
  11. the voice of Africa at a time when Africa
    was thought not to have a voice at all.
  12. The mayor of Bamako,
    who witnessed the event,
  13. called the burning of the manuscripts
  14. "a crime against world cultural heritage."
  15. And he was right --
  16. or he would have been, if it weren't
    for the fact that he was also lying.
  17. In fact, just before,

  18. African scholars had collected
    a random assortment of old books
  19. and left them out
    for the terrorists to burn.
  20. Today, the collection
    lies hidden in Bamako,
  21. the capital of Mali,
  22. moldering in the high humidity.
  23. What was rescued by ruse
  24. is now once again in jeopardy,
  25. this time by climate.
  26. But Africa, and the far-flung
    corners of the world,

  27. are not the only places,
    or even the main places
  28. in which manuscripts that could change
    the history of world culture
  29. are in jeopardy.
  30. Several years ago, I conducted
    a survey of European research libraries
  31. and discovered that,
    at the barest minimum,
  32. there are 60,000 manuscripts
  33. pre-1500
  34. that are illegible
    because of water damage,
  35. fading, mold and chemical reagents.
  36. The real number is likely double that,
  37. and that doesn't even count
  38. Renaissance manuscripts
    and modern manuscripts
  39. and cultural heritage
    objects such as maps.
  40. What if there were a technology

  41. that could recover
    these lost and unknown works?
  42. Imagine worldwide
    how a trove of hundreds of thousands
  43. of previously unknown texts
  44. could radically transform
    our knowledge of the past.
  45. Imagine what unknown classics
    we would discover
  46. which would rewrite the canons
    of literature, history,
  47. philosophy, music --
  48. or, more provocatively, that could
    rewrite our cultural identities,
  49. building new bridges
    between people and culture.
  50. These are the questions
    that transformed me
  51. from a medieval scholar,
    a reader of texts,
  52. into a textual scientist.
  53. What an unsatisfying word "reader" is.

  54. For me, it conjures up
    images of passivity,
  55. of someone sitting idly in an armchair
  56. waiting for knowledge to come to him
  57. in a neat little parcel.
  58. How much better to be
    a participant in the past,
  59. an adventurer in an undiscovered country,
  60. searching for the hidden text.
  61. As an academic, I was a mere reader.
  62. I read and taught the same classics
  63. that people had been reading
    and teaching for hundreds of years --
  64. Virgil, Ovid, Chaucer, Petrarch --
  65. and with every scholarly article
    that I published
  66. I added to human knowledge
    in ever-diminishing slivers of insight.
  67. What I wanted to be
  68. was an archaeologist of the past,
  69. a discoverer of literature,
  70. an Indiana Jones without the whip --
  71. or, actually, with the whip.
  72. (Laughter)

  73. And I wanted it not just for myself
    but I wanted it for my students as well.
  74. And so six years ago,
    I changed the direction of my career.

  75. At the time, I was working
    on "The Chess of Love,"
  76. the last important long poem
    of the European Middle Ages
  77. never to have been edited.
  78. And it wasn't edited because
    it existed in only one manuscript
  79. which was so badly damaged
    during the firebombing of Dresden
  80. in World War II
  81. that generations of scholars
    had pronounced it lost.
  82. For five years, I had been working
    with an ultraviolet lamp
  83. trying to recover traces of the writing
  84. and I'd gone about as far
    as technology at the time
  85. could actually take me.
  86. And so I did what many people do.

  87. I went online,
  88. and there I learned about
  89. how multispectral imaging had been used
    to recover two lost treatises
  90. of the famed Greek
    mathematician Archimedes
  91. from a 13th-century palimpsest.
  92. A palimpsest is a manuscript
    which has been erased and overwritten.
  93. And so, out of the blue,

  94. I decided to write
    to the lead imaging scientist
  95. on the Archimedes palimpsest project,
  96. Professor Roger Easton,
  97. with a plan and a plea.
  98. And to my surprise,
    he actually wrote back.
  99. With his help, I was able
    to win a grant from the US government
  100. to build a transportable,
    multispectral imaging lab,
  101. And with this lab, I transformed
    what was a charred and faded mess
  102. into a new medieval classic.
  103. So how does multispectral
    imaging actually work?

  104. Well, the idea
    behind multispectral imaging
  105. is something that anyone who is familiar
    with infrared night vision goggles
  106. will immediately appreciate:
  107. that what we can see
    in the visible spectrum of light
  108. is only a tiny fraction
    of what's actually there.
  109. The same is true with invisible writing.
  110. Our system uses 12 wavelengths of light
  111. between the ultraviolet and the infrared,
  112. and these are shown down
    onto the manuscript from above
  113. from banks of LEDs,
  114. and another multispectral light source
  115. which comes up through
    the individual leaves of the manuscript.
  116. Up to 35 images per sequence
    per leaf are imaged this way
  117. using a high-powered digital camera
    equipped with a lens
  118. which is made out of quartz.
  119. There are about five
    of these in the world.
  120. And once we capture these images,
  121. we feed them through
    statistical algorithms
  122. to further enhance and clarify them,
  123. using software which was originally
    designed for satellite images
  124. and used by people
    like geospatial scientists
  125. and the CIA.
  126. The results can be spectacular.

  127. You may already have heard
    of what's been done
  128. for the Dead Sea Scrolls,
  129. which are slowly gelatinizing.
  130. Using infrared, we've been able
    to read even the darkest corners
  131. of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
  132. You may not be aware, however,
  133. of other Biblical texts
    that are in jeopardy.
  134. Here, for example,
    is a leaf from a manuscript

  135. that we imaged,
  136. which is perhaps the most valuable
    Christian Bible in the world.
  137. The Codex Vercellensis is the oldest
    translation of the Gospels into Latin,
  138. and it dates from the first half
    of the fourth century.
  139. This is the closest we can come
  140. to the Bible at the time
    of the foundation of Christendom
  141. under Emperor Constantine,
  142. and at the time also
    of the Council of Nicaea,
  143. when the basic creed of Christianity
    was being agreed upon.
  144. This manuscript, unfortunately,
    has been very badly damaged,
  145. and it's damaged because for centuries
  146. it had been used and handled
  147. in swearing in ceremonies in the church.
  148. In fact, that purple splotch
    that you see in the upper left hand corner
  149. is Aspergillus, which is a fungus
  150. which originates in the unwashed hands
  151. of a person with tuberculosis.
  152. Our imaging has enabled me
    to make the first transcription
  153. of this manuscript in 250 years.
  154. Having a lab that can travel
    to collections where it's needed, however,

  155. is only part of the solution.
  156. The technology is expensive and very rare,
  157. and the imaging and image
    processing skills are esoteric.
  158. That means that mounting recoveries
  159. is beyond the reach of most researchers
    and all but the wealthiest institutions.
  160. That's why I founded the Lazarus Project,
  161. a not-for-profit initiative
  162. to bring multispectral imaging
    to individual researchers
  163. and smaller institutions
    at little or no cost whatsoever.
  164. Over the past five years,
  165. our team of imaging scientists,
    scholars and students
  166. has travelled to seven different countries
  167. and have recovered some of the world's
    most valuable damaged manuscripts,
  168. included the Vercelli Book,
    which is the oldest book of English,
  169. the Black Book of Carmarthen,
    the oldest book of Welsh,
  170. and some of the most valuable
    earliest Gospels
  171. located in what is now
    the former Soviet Georgia.
  172. So, spectral imaging
    can recover lost texts.

  173. More subtly, though, it can recover
    a second story behind every object,
  174. the story of how, when
    and by whom a text was created,
  175. and, sometimes, what the author
    was thinking at the time he wrote.
  176. Take, for example, a draft
    of the Declaration of Independence
  177. written in Thomas Jefferson's own hand,
  178. which some colleagues of mine
    imaged a few years ago
  179. at the Library of Congress.
  180. Curators had noticed
    that one word throughout
  181. had been scratched out and overwritten.
  182. The word overwritten was "citizens."
  183. Perhaps you can guess
    what the word underneath was.
  184. "Subjects."
  185. There, ladies and gentlemen,
    is American democracy
  186. evolving under the hand
    of Thomas Jefferson.
  187. Or consider the 1491 Martellus Map,

  188. which we imaged
    at Yale's Beinecke Library.
  189. This was the map
    that Columbus likely consulted
  190. before he traveled to the New World
  191. and which gave him his idea
    of what Asia looked like
  192. and where Japan was located.
  193. The problem with this map
    is that its inks and pigments
  194. had so degraded over time
  195. that this large, nearly seven-foot map,
  196. made the world look like a giant desert.
  197. Until now, we had very little idea,
    detailed idea, that is,
  198. of what Columbus knew of the world
  199. and how world cultures were represented.
  200. The main legend of the map
    was entirely illegible under normal light.
  201. Ultraviolet did very little for it.
  202. Multispectral gave us everything.
  203. In Asia, we learned of monsters
    with ears so long
  204. that they could cover
    the creature's entire body.
  205. In Africa, about a snake
    who could cause the ground to smoke.
  206. Like starlight, which can convey images
  207. of the way the Universe
    looked in the distant past,
  208. so multispectral light can take us back
    to the first stuttering moments
  209. of an object's creation.
  210. Through this lens, we witness
    the mistakes, the changes of mind,
  211. the naïvetés, the uncensored thoughts,
  212. the imperfections of the human imagination
  213. that allow these hallowed objects
    and their authors
  214. to become more real,
  215. that make history closer to us.
  216. What about the future?

  217. There's so much of the past,
  218. and so few people
    with the skills to rescue it
  219. before these objects disappear forever.
  220. That's why I have begun to teach
    this new hybrid discipline
  221. that I call "textual science."
  222. Textual science is a marriage
  223. of the traditional skills
    of a literary scholar --
  224. the ability to read old languages
    and old handwriting,
  225. the knowledge of how texts are made
  226. in order to be able
    to place and date them --
  227. with new techniques like imaging science,
  228. the chemistry of inks and pigments,
  229. computer-aided optical
    character recognition.
  230. Last year, a student in my class,

  231. a freshman,
  232. with a background in Latin and Greek,
  233. was image-processing a palimpsest
  234. that we had photographed
    at a famous library in Rome.
  235. As he worked, tiny Greek writing
    began to appear from behind the text.
  236. Everyone gathered around,
  237. and he read a line from a lost work
  238. of the Greek comic dramatist Menander.
  239. This was the first time
    in well over a thousand years
  240. that those words
    had been pronounced aloud.
  241. In that moment, he became a scholar.
  242. Ladies and gentlemen,
    that is the future of the past.

  243. Thank you very much.

  244. (Applause)