The particle accelerator experiment that could rewrite the history of printing

The particle accelerator experiment that could rewrite the history of printing
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I am a bit nervous. In my right hand, I hold a priceless piece of human history. And that’s not hyperbole. It’s a weathered black folder, adorned with gold text on the front. A Gothic-style text reads “A leaf from the Gutenberg Bible (1450 – 1455)”.

Yes, that Gutenberg Bible. These original pages, dating from the fifteenth century, have reached the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Northern California to be destroyed by high powered X-rays. Along with pages from the Bible, a 15th-century Korean Confucian text, a page from the 14th-century Canterbury Tales, and other Western and Eastern documents are ready to withstand the bombardment. Researchers hope that within the pages of these valuable documents lie clues about the evolution of one of mankind’s most important inventions: the printing press.


A page from an original 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 residue of the typefaces that are used in these Western and Eastern prints,” said image consultant Michael Toth.

For centuries, it was commonly believed that Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press around 1440 AD in Germany. He is believed to have printed 180 Bibles (fewer than 50 are known to exist today). But more recently, historians have uncovered evidence that Korean Buddhists began printing around 1250 AD.


A Gutenberg Bible page of the First and Second Epistles of Peter, from the mid-15th century.

Jacqueline Ramseyer Orrell/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

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

To put it more bluntly: Was Gutenberg’s invention based, at least in part, on Eastern technology? That’s where the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Light Source comes 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 a massive ring-shaped tunnel to generate X-rays (as opposed to SLAC’s most famous linear particle accelerator, the two-mile-long LCLS). These X-rays give scientists the ability to study the structural and chemical properties of matter. To see exactly how they are using SSRL to study the priceless documents, watch the video above.

By firing SSRL’s hair-thin X-ray beam at a block of text in a document, researchers can create two-dimensional chemical maps detailing the elements present in each pixel. It’s a technique called X-ray fluorescence imaging, or XRF.


The Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Light Source (SSRL) at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

“The atoms in that sample emit light, and we can trace which elements that light must come from in the periodic table,” said Minhal Gardezi, a doctoral student working on the project.

Although SSRL’s X-rays are powerful, they do not damage documents, giving scientists a holistic view of the molecules that make up ancient texts. They also give them the ability to search for trace metals that historians say shouldn’t be in the ink. That would indicate that they probably came from the printing press itself. “That would mean we could learn something about the alloys that were used in Korea and by Gutenberg and then maybe by others,” Bergmann said.


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

Mike Toth/SLAC National Laboratory of Accelerators

If they find similarities in the chemical compositions of the documents, that could contribute to ongoing research on the differences and similarities of printing technologies, and whether there was an exchange of information from East Asian cultures to the West.

However, all the scientists I spoke to about the project made it clear that even if similarities were found between the two papers, it would not definitively prove that one technology influenced the other.

The documents are on loan from private collections, the Stanford Library, and archives in Korea. The research at SLAC is part of a larger project led by UNESCO I call From Jikji to Gutenberg. The findings will be presented at the Library of Congress next April.

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