Sunday, 1 February 2015

Get your nose out of that papyrus and go and play football

Scientific explanation should be as simple as possible, but not more simple. I think it was Einstein who said that. Unsurprisingly, the BBC is of the ‘more simple’ persuasion. Remember that awful TV programme ‘Tomorrow’s World’? Some girl chosen more for her looks than her scientific acumen would be shown playing with some new invention. She would turn to the camera and say ‘But how does it work? Well, (pointing to a little box) it works by this little device here!’ (Lux in tenebris, exclamations of ‘Well, well, whatever next’, end of ‘explanation’.) This got sillier and sillier week by week until the BBC took it off for very shame.

So I’m a touch doubtful about the ‘explanation’ given on BBC World Service radio this morning for something very interesting indeed: a way of reading the charred remains of papyrus scrolls from the Herculaneum library, which was destroyed in the eruption of Mount Etna some 2,000 years ago. Up to now one could do nothing with the scrolls: if you tried to unroll them they crumbled of course. Nevertheless the French Bibliotheque Nationale has carefully kept some of these scrolls ever since Napoleon nicked them on a trip to Italy. (Meanwhile my local public library in England recently threw out hundreds of readable books, including the Everyman three volume Herodotus Histories, which I rescued, simply because they were ‘old’ and ‘no-one ever borrowed them.’)

So how does one read these carbonized scrolls? The BBC man mentioned a synchrotron. He didn’t say how that helped, but it was an excuse to go and visit a very big synchrotron that happens to be in France. There, what seemed to be a real scientist explained that X-ray diffraction techniques are used to examine the insides of the still rolled-up scrolls. I imagine this is where the synchrotron comes in. The ink on the papyrus deflects X-rays rather differently than inkless papyrus does, so a vast number of X-ray pictures and an amount of analysis that would be unthinkable without computers enables one to make out letters, words, even entire texts.

‘But don’t get too excited,’ our BBC man warned us: ‘The scroll they’re examining turns out to be by some philosopher who lived around the time of Julius Caesar.’

The item pictured below is not what it looks like: it is one of these burnt scrolls.

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