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February 15, 2009

X-rays Allow Scientists to Peer Into the Past

A bronze Egyptian statue. Credit: Copyright Trustees of the British MuseumThanks to a particle accelerator the size of a football field, paleontologist Paul Tafforeau of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France, was able to touch a 100-million-year-old wasp. It wasn't a real bug, but a larger-than-life plastic reconstruction made possible by shooting x-ray beams up to a billion times brighter than a hospital x-ray at ancient pieces of amber. A three-dimensional plastic printer made the model, which Tafforeau said at a press conference today is better than any virtual representation on a computer. "You can feel it in your hands."  

Long-extinct insects, corroded ancient bronzes, parchments too delicate to unroll--these are some of the ancient objects that the world's most advanced x-ray facilities, including ESRF, are bringing to light. The x-rays at a synchrotron pick up speed by flying around a doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber, hundreds of meters in circumference. That results in an extremely bright, highly focused beam, which a computer processes into an ultrahigh-resolution image, all without damaging the sample.

So what other secrets from the past are emerging?

The Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Menlo Park, California, is bringing work from the third century B.C.E. to life. Scientists there are studying the Archimedes Palimpsest, which contains the oldest known copies of the ancient Greek thinker's work. A later monk scraped the 10th-century parchment clean to reuse it in a prayer book, then part of it was painted over just in the last century, but Stanford physicist Uwe Bergmann has used the synchrotron to reveal Archimedes' words--for example, a very early use of the concept of infinity.

Meanwhile, the Diamond synchrotron in Didcot, Oxfordshire, is being upgraded to handle the largest samples yet. It should be operating by spring 2010 and will be able to look for cracks in aircraft turbines. "We've never been able to look at anything that big before," says Diamond's Jen Hiller, who has used the technology to look at ancient scrolls.

One of the first uses of the big new stage at Diamond will be a study of a set of half-life-sized Egyptian bronzes in the British Museum (see picture). The synchrotron's bright rays will show museum conservators if the figures have been repaired--if they have all their "original bits," says Hiller. Archaeologists use the technique, too; a synchrotron can search a messy chunk of excavated mud for treasure. And the technology is constantly improving, she says. "We get better at it every year."

--Helen Fields


Shouldn't that be "the electrons at a synchrotron"?