The particle accelerator that attempts to unravel the origins of printing

The particle accelerator that attempts to unravel the origins of printing

In Cheongju, South Korea, there is a popular saying that "anyone who does not know Jikji is a foreign spy". The term appears on all road signs and is added to the names of bars, bookstores and delis. For a few years, the local football team was renamed Jikji Fc. "It's literally everywhere. I'm not kidding," says Angelica Noh, who recently moved to the city from Seoul. Noh learned the word in elementary school, "like everyone in Korea," she says. Jikji is the name of a book, a collection of Confucius teachings, which was printed by a group of monks in a Cheongju temple in 1377. Although few outside Korea are aware of it, the date is significant: Jikji is the oldest book printed with movable metal type, and predates Gutenberg's first Bible by 78 years.

The Unesco program specialist Noh experiment was describing his adopted city from inside the Stanford Linear Accelerator Laboratory, or Slac, in Menlo Park, California. She had arrived the same week from South Korea, bringing with her a collection of more recent documents, which were in the laboratory to be analyzed together with a series of European texts with the help of a synchrotron, a type of particle accelerator. . When electrons spin around in the accelerator's circular structure, they emit X-rays that end up in small, sealed laboratory chambers, where scientists conduct experiments. At that time, this particular chamber housed a peculiar book: an original copy of Gutenberg's Bible, made in Germany in 1450, carefully hung from its outer cover so that it dangled in front of the X-ray beams. For the next five hours, the Bible made slow undulations as its pages were scanned in sections about 60 microns wide, just over half the width of a lock of hair.

The experiment was to contribute to a kind of investigation. When high-energy X-rays hit an object, such as the Bible, the atoms in the ink and paper begin to emit electrons, producing a fluorescent light. Depending on the type of element affected - chlorine, copper or tin - this light is emitted with a particular amount of energy, which can be translated into images, creating a map of the elements present on the page.

With these images , the researchers hoped to be able to compare the traditions of Asia and Europe in the printing of texts. That day, in the laboratory, they made images of dozens of documents produced in opposite corners of the world around the same time, around the fifteenth century. Korean artifacts, a series of mostly Confucian texts, represented hundreds of years of movable type printing in Asia, dating back to at least the 11th century. The European ones, on the other hand, also included a first edition of the Canterbury Tales and a second copy of the Gutenberg Bible and represented the birth of tradition in the West.

The texts were created at a time when the cultures of the two continents had come closer, even if the historical documentation does not tell us what links existed between the two on a technological level. The researchers hope that a deeper analysis of the objects can offer clues at the molecular level about the processes that made possible the production of the documents and their potential similarities. "Is there a bridge - asks Randy Silverman, librarian who deals with the preservation of texts at the University of Utah and coordinator of the Jikji-Gutenberg project -? Is there a path that has allowed the technology to be shared across trade routes? It is possible that Gutenberg saw an object that came from Asia and said to himself: 'Why not do it here?' ".

While they have a Gutenberg Bible, the Stanford researchers do not have the Jikji. The book is in France, where it hasn't been shown to the public for about 50 years. In 1887 the Jikji was bought by a French ambassador to Korea, was later sold to a collector and finally donated to the French national library. Since then, the Korean government has repeatedly demanded its return, coming close to getting it in an exchange under a high-speed rail technology deal. However, librarians opposed the request, which was then scaled back to a loan or even a public exhibition in Paris: "We don't want to have access to the Jikji for ourselves. We just want it to be shown to the public," says Seung- Cheol Lee, research director at Unesco and other project director. For the time being, therefore, scientists will have to make do with the documents that Lee and Noh brought from Korea.

Possible intersections between West and East Printing is often thought of as a single invention: a man of Mainz, in Germany, which made a discovery starting the printing revolution, the European Enlightenment and, ultimately, the modern era. For some time, however, scholars have been debating how printing developed in Germany. Was it an independent innovation, born of the advances in metalworking in Europe? Or was it an art shared through trade routes and empires, directly or with a more informal diffusion of ideas?

For other Asian innovations, such as paper and gunpowder, it exists clear documentation that testifies to its diffusion in Europe, with artifacts and records that trace its journey west along the routes of trade and conquest. For the press, however, there is no hard copy, says Valerie Hansen, a professor of Chinese history at the University of Yale. We have no evidence that European printers have come into contact with the results of the Asian press, such as banknotes or essays, and have then tried to go back to the processes that produced them (although this remains a plausible hypothesis, given the growing contacts between East and West in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries).

A careful analysis of both printing technologies also revealed more differences than similarities: different inks (oil-based in Europe and water-based in Asia) and different processes to create the types of metal that imprint the ink on the page. In the fourteenth century, when the Jikji was printed, Korean printers made extensive use of the sand casting method to produce characters, which consists of filling molds coated with compressed sand. To create their movable type, the Europeans replaced sand with metal. One advantage was that the metal molds could be reused, allowing the characters for individual letters to be mass-produced. This is one of the factors thought to have contributed to the rapid spread of printing in Europe.

This innovation has long been traced back to Gutenberg's laboratory. But in the early 2000s, in front of a packed audience in a New York literary club, a couple of Princeton researchers set out a surprising theory: perhaps Gutenberg's creations were not an unprecedented technological triumph.

The researchers' analysis focused on the small imperfections of the text. If a metal stamp had been used to create the characters, all the letters - for example each a on a page - would have to be the same. But a mathematical analysis revealed the existence of differences between the letters. The researchers speculated that the patterns were more in line with the sand casting technique. While not everyone agrees with this interpretation, the evidence supporting the theory has multiplied since then. To kick off a more in-depth study of Gutenberg's methods for his project, Silverman asked Jonathan Thornton, a retired librarian and craftsman at the State University of New York at Buffalo, to see if he could recreate the typographical defects. using sand casting in your own laboratory. Apparently, it is possible.

The use of sand casting does not definitively link the two traditions - at the time various forms of the technique were widespread in both Asia and Europe - but it represents a further example how the two schools were actually closer than you think. The findings also imply that the metal mold, with its regular and replicable fonts, probably came later, and suggest that printing developed more gradually. "Apparently we don't know much about Gutenberg, the man who according to everyone started modernity," says Silverman.

X-rays to unravel the mysteries of the press Analyzing objects with X-rays it is not a new method. A Gutenberg Bible had been analyzed as early as the 1980s with a much less powerful particle accelerator than that of the University of California, Davis. The Stanford synchrotron, however, is much more sensitive, and is able to see a wider range of elements with a greater level of detail, explains Mike Toth, an imaging expert who often works with ancient objects. X-rays are often used to explore what is not seen, such as a permanently rolled document, or to check if a hidden painting has been covered up by another artist to save on canvas.

In this case, the research team could read the words on the page with their own eyes. Even if they weren't sure what they were looking for when comparing the scanned texts, the scientists started with certainties: they expected, for example, to find lead in European inks and copper in Asian ones, based on surviving descriptions and artifacts. Mercury appears in Confucian texts, because monks went back to writing to highlight an important passage using red ink. But the researchers also hoped to find something new. One of the reasons Gutenberg's story has so many unknowns is that the characters used to create the first printed Bible have been lost. Was it possible that they had left a footprint on the pages? When they were imprinted on the paper, together with the slightly corrosive ink, perhaps they left traces at the atomic level that could reveal their composition. Toth likens it to forensic imaging: looking for clues in traces you accidentally leave behind. Researchers haven't had much time to test their hypothesis. They had to race against time, scanning the dozens of documents before the Slac facilities closed for a few weeks for a scheduled summer maintenance. That week in late July, the scientists worked in shifts in the lab, meeting the next morning on Zoom with scholars and historians from around the world to discuss what they had found and what data they should collect next. For each document, they made an elementary profile using X-ray fluorescence, followed in some cases by a second X-ray scan to measure the amount of energy absorbed by the atoms. The process can help decipher the form in which an element appears: for example, an iron atom bonded to oxygen to form an iron oxide could indicate the presence of an ink sample. In the coming years, the researchers intend to publish their data and launch a traveling exhibition to present their findings and scholars' interpretations.

Results and perspectives But they have unearthed a first surprise: an unexpected abundance of copper on the pages of Korean texts and the Bible. The next day, on Zoom, the scholars began exchanging theories. Perhaps it was an unknown ingredient in the ink? Or had they made a discovery about the characters used by Gutenberg? Maybe the discovery had nothing to do with the press; perhaps fifteenth-century printers on both continents used a copper cauldron to mix their inks.

The project is unlikely to unearth specific links between Korean and European texts: "Did movable type move from Korea to Mainz? That's too specific a question to answer," Hansen points out. But it is useful, in his opinion, to highlight the complexities and overlaps between traditions: "There are more roads leading to the modern world, and much of our energy has been directed to that of Europe", he says.

Hansen adds that perhaps it would be more interesting to ask why one culture approached print faster than the other. Both traditions converged on similar technical solutions to solve the problem of information dissemination. But in Europe, it is possible that the politics of the early Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation were tied to demand as much as to innovation: the right technology at the right time. Then there are some practical reasons to consider: the Latin alphabet is made up of only 26 letters, which are relatively simple to mass produce in the form of typefaces. The Chinese script, used in Korea at the time, on the other hand has thousands of characters.

Researchers also hope that the project will be able to draw more attention to the Jijki. They would like the French National Library to agree to exhibit the book in a series of exhibits to illustrate the results of Slac's research (library representatives did not respond to a request for comment from US). The goal, according to Silverman, is not to present the Jikji as a unique achievement or as a competitor of Gutenberg, but rather as a representative of one of the many paths that have led to the modern world. "We are trying to prove that there is no monopoly on scientific knowledge," he says.

This article originally appeared on US.

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