Innocently couriered around the world in fireproof bags, priceless 15th-century documents have arrived in Menlo Park at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory for an early printing press experiment.
While SLAC scientists typically look to the future and break new ground, this time they’re examining some 600 years in the past for metallic residues in documents created on printing presses in the east and west. Their goal: to find out whether or not the East Asian printing press and the European Gutenberg press were simply invented at the same time, or if the ideas were shared across the world.
“That would be the million dollar question, and it will take a lot of work, a lot of effort to shed some light on this question. But that’s the question, which really excites us,” said Uwe Bergmann, a professor of Ultrafast X-ray Science from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Bergmann believes the printing press is one of the most revolutionary inventions of the second millennium, and the invention is often credited to the Gutenberg printing press in the 1400s which began by printing Bibles for mass consumption. However, movable-type printing presses in Asia actually appeared a few hundred years before Johannes Gutenberg’s invention, but did not take off in the same way as the materials were still reserved for the upper class.
To accomplish their mission, SLAC scientists have several texts to analyze, including Korean Confucian texts, pages from the Gutenberg Bible and a copy of the first edition of the Canterbury Tales, among others. The documents of the experiment come from the archives of Stanford and Korea, as well as from certain private collectors.
The documents were accompanied on their flights, hidden in fireproof luggage bags in order to appear as commonplace as any other luggage carried through an airport.
Using an incredibly thin and powerful beam of X-rays, scientists at SLAC are able to analyze elements through a method known as X-ray fluorescence. Atoms constantly have energy coming out of them. , and with this technique, the beam is able to alter the energy that comes out of a single atom. By measuring these altered energy signals, scientists can trace the signature back to the specific elements present.
Every centimeter of the document is analyzed and each element found is reported to the researchers.
This strategy allows SLAC scientists to create page element maps, uncover evidence of multiple metals on a page, and even a fingerprint.
According to UNESCO’s Angelica Noh, the researchers not only found a fingerprint, but smudges on the pages that could provide insight beyond just the moving typeface. Instead, it could shed light on small aspects of people’s lives around 600 years ago.
After finding an unexpected amount of copper in a document, researchers have already had to start analyzing the past print in a new light.
“Now we’re sort of piecing together the puzzles with people completely outside of the STEM field, historians or archivists, people who have gathered historical knowledge about what was going on, to try to figure out what’s going on here” , said Minhal Gardesi of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
As of now, there is no convincing evidence whether or not the Gutenberg press was influenced by the East Asian printing press, but the project is just beginning and is expected to last over six years.
Chief X-ray scientist Sam Webb assists the team with an x-ray whose software he completely rewrote during the COVID-19 pandemic. The beamline used in the experiment can operate around the clock from her phone, taking data even when pandemic precautions are in place.
“You can really look back in history with this and use our tools to look back in that way,” Webb said. “It’s really fun to think, you know, we can find things that are missing or learn how materials were made, you know, hundreds and thousands of years ago, and that’s fun. ( It has this) aspect of being fun as much as science.”
Although a historic exercise, Webb said the search can also be effective today. Elements used thousands of years ago are used in things like batteries today, and analyzing ancient chemical compounds can help understand materials as they exist today.
Beyond the analysis, the project has another objective: to encourage the National Library of France in Paris to reveal the first printed work of Asia, Jikji. The French museum only showed the document once, according to Noh.
When the project ends in 2027, the team wants to have 44 exhibits around the world, and Noh said she hopes that if there is enough interest in the project, Jikji can be shown to the public again. .
“We may like to apply a little pressure so…as people gauge their interest, they would like to see the actual printed materials and hopefully it can all be shown to the world again,” Noh said.
As much as scientists can hypothesize what they may find, they are in uncharted waters with this method of analysis. According to Bergmann, they could always find completely unexpected metals or ratios that don’t make sense, it all depends on what the element maps say.
“None of these objects, including this really very important Confucious book that was printed either shortly before Gutenberg or shortly after – we don’t know that very well yet – none of them have ever been studied with this type of chemical analysis,” Bergmann said. . “So we’re in completely new territory here.”