Experiment with a particle accelerator that could rewrite the history of the printing press

I’m a little nervous. In my right hand I hold a priceless piece of human history. This is no exaggeration. It’s a weathered black box, decorated with gold text on the front. In the Gothic text it reads “Paper from the Gutenberg Bible (1450 – 1455).”

Of, which one Gutenberg Bible. This original page, dating from the 15th century, arrived at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Northern California to be detonated by high-energy X-rays. Along with the pages of the Bible, there are 15th-century Korean Confucian texts, pages of the Canterbury Tales written in the 14th century and other Western and Eastern documents prepared to withstand this attack. Researchers hope that in the pages of this priceless document there is evidence of the development of mankind’s most important invention: the printing press.


A page from the original Gutenberg Bible (1450-1455 AD) scanned by light from the SLAC synchrotron particle accelerator.

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

“What we’re trying to learn is the initial composition of the ink, paper, and possibly the rest of the fonts used in these Western and Eastern prints,” said imaging consultant Michael Toth.

For centuries, it is believed that Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press around AD 1440 in Germany. He is believed to have printed 180 scriptures (less than 50 currently exist). Recently, however, historians have found evidence that Korean Buddhists began printing around AD 1250.


A page from the Gutenberg Bible of the first and second letters of Peter, mid-fifteenth century.

Jacqueline Ramsier Orel / Laboratorium Akselerator Nasional SLAC

“What is not known is whether these two discoveries are truly separate, or whether there is a flow of information,” said Uwe Bergman, a professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin. “If there is a flow of information, of course from Korea to the West to Gothenburg.”

To make it clearer: Did Gutenberg’s invention depend, at least in part, on Eastern technology? here Stanford Synchrotron Radiant Light Source Enter.


History of Spring and Autumn, Confucius, c. 1442.

Jacqueline Ramsier Orel / Laboratorium Akselerator Nasional SLAC

A synchrotron is a particle accelerator that shoots electrons in a large ring-shaped tunnel to produce X-rays (as opposed to The most famous linear particle accelerator from SLAC, LCLS 2 mil). These X-rays give scientists the ability to study the structural and chemical properties of matter. To see exactly how they use SSL to study a very valuable document, watch the video above.

By firing an X-ray beam thinner than a human hair’s SSRL at blocks of text in a document, researchers were able to create a 2D chemical map that separates the elements in each pixel. This is a technique called X-ray fluorescence imaging, or XRF.


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

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

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

Although SSRL X-rays are very powerful, they do not damage documents, providing scholars with a comprehensive view of the molecules that make up ancient texts. It also gave them the ability to search for minerals that historians say should not have been written in ink. This may indicate that they may have come from the printing press itself. “This means we can learn something about the alloy used in Korea and Gutenberg and then maybe later on by someone else,” Bergmann said.


Scientists can use X-rays to create two-dimensional chemical maps from ancient texts like this Confucian document.

Mike Toth National Accelerator Laboratory / SLAC

If they find similarities in the chemical structure of the document, it could contribute to ongoing research into the differences and similarities in printing techniques, and whether there is an exchange of information from East Asian to Western cultures.

However, every scientist I spoke to on the project explained that even if similarities were found between the two documents, it would not be conclusively proven that one technology affected the other.

The documents were borrowed from private collections, the Stanford Library and Archives in Korea. Research at SLAC is part of a larger project led by UNESCO A call From Jikji to Gothenburg. The results will be presented in Library of Congress next April.

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