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Hidden history: An RIT professor helps recover ancient texts



If the revolutionary knowledge contained in works by legendary Greek mathematician Archimedes had been available earlier, many scholars say, it could've altered the course of modern science. Instead, the works disappeared into a void for about 1,000 years.

The newly recovered works show, among other things, that Archimedes anticipated calculus, the basis for modern engineering and science, by nearly 2,000 years.

"We could've been on Mars today," says Chris Rorres, professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, in a PBS documentary. "We could've accomplished things that people are predicting will happen a century from now."

Archimedes lived in the third century B.C. These seven treatises were scraped, overwritten, and turned into a prayer book by 13th century monks. That was common practice, and manuscripts like these are called palimpsests.

A fuller but still incomplete understanding of the Archimedes palimpsest came after the extremely deteriorated and damaged work was auctioned for $2 million to an anonymous bidder in 1998. The palimpsest subsequently underwent an extensive study led by imaging science professor Roger Easton and his team at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Exhaustive work on the palimpsest since then has led to recovery of about 80 percent of the text, including a previously unknown third-century commentary on a work by Aristotle.

The Archimedes project led to the start of an initiative to uncover and preserve works around the world that are threatened by political strife, age, the environment, and other factors. Easton and his team, which includes RIT students and colleagues worldwide, have worked on Thomas Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence, for example, palimpsests at St. Catherine's Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai in Egypt, and the African diaries of David Livingstone.

"Livingstone kept very detailed diaries," Easton says, "but he ran out of paper and ink out in the African jungle, so he used printed newspapers and berry juice. So he wrote it and the juice immediately faded."

Some doubted that the team could salvage the writing, he says, but they've had very good luck with it.

Easton's workspace in the basement of RIT's Carlson Center of Imaging Science is an explosion of machinery, parts, and wires; it looks like a giant robot fell apart in the large, windowless room. Easton is lively and engaging. He talks fast and throws out partial names and bits of stories in a way that makes you feel like you've joined a complicated movie two-thirds of the way through.

"We're looking, typically, for text that's been erased," he says. "The text is often very difficult to see to the untrained eye."

The process is called multispectral imaging. The manuscript being examined is photographed using different wavelengths of light, including some that are invisible to the human eye. The scientists look for the combination of images that best brings out the text they want to see.

"We adopted it from military and environmental studies, remote sensing," Easton says. "You fly an airplane over, you take a picture in different colors of light, you figure out: 'OK, this is where the crops need water, and there they're fine.'"

It's important not to harm the original manuscripts, he says, so that future scientists with even better technology can examine them.

The initiative that coalesced as a result of the work on the Archimedes palimpsest is called The Lazarus Project, which is the vision of former medieval scholar and teacher Gregory Heyworth at the University of Mississippi. Easton is on the project's board, along with Heyworth and a few others.

Many historical texts are held in small repositories around the world that do not have the resources or the skills to do the imaging. The nonprofit Lazarus Project brings the technology to smaller institutions and individual researchers at little to no cost.

Being associated with an educational institution works out well, Easton says, because students can be trained in both the technical and historical aspects of the work, putting more people out there imaging and processing the staggering number of texts that need it. A survey of European research libraries revealed that a minimum of 60,000 manuscripts from before the year 1500 are damaged or otherwise unreadable. The real number, Heyworth says, is probably double that.

"Number one, we need to document the stuff, and we need to disseminate it at various places so it's preserved," Easton says. "And also, we have no idea what's underneath some of them."

RIT humanities students have found manuscripts on their own to image, he says. And undergraduates and some high school students in the summer intern program have "cut their image processing teeth" on these projects, he says, and have, in fact, come up with some of the best images to date.

"If you have a project, we will find the money and we will have students work on it to train them," Easton says. "We will figure out how to get the travel expenses. The goal is to have enough of an 'endowment' from the educational institution to support travel for the students."

Easton delayed his retirement from RIT because he would lose access to the students, colleagues, and equipment necessary to do the work.

"I also believe that this is keeping me active and 'young,'" he says.

Easton's work does sometimes land him in troubled places around the world. The team has postponed trips to St. Catherine's Monastery a couple of times, for example, the first being around the period of the Arab Spring. But Easton says that he's never felt that his safety was in danger.

So let's say you find an ancient scroll with the Ten Commandments written on it — except you notice that, between the lines, are what look like ghost images. You have Easton and his team image the scroll for you and "Thou shalt not kill," becomes "Thou shalt not kill, except sometimes."

Multispectral imaging has that kind of disruptive potential. It can bring a dead language back to life: during a project last summer, a colleague of Easton's was able to interpret a portion of a recovered text written in Caucasian Albanian, a dead language, which he recognized as part of the Gospel of St. John. But the technology could also forever alter the knowledge and teachings that humanity has held to be true for thousands of years.

Easton says that doesn't worry him too much, because his loyalty is to the manuscript in front of him.

"In the history of mathematics, I guess you could argue that it has changed things," he says. "Because now it's generally accepted as a result of the Archimedes palimpsest that Archimedes understood the principles of integral calculus. And that was 1,800 years before Newton."

Easton acknowledges that having the power to blow a hole through history is a profound responsibility.

"Oh yeah," he says. "But it's so cool."

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