X-rays brighter than the sun to virtually decipher ancient scrolls

Robie de Guzman   •   October 3, 2019   •   685

Ancient scrolls dating back to 2,000 years ago

Scientists at Britain’s national synchrotron facility have harnessed powerful light beams to virtually unwrap and decipher fragile scrolls dating back some 2,000 years in a process they hope will provide new insights into the ancient world.

The two complete scrolls and four fragments – from the so-called Herculaneum library, the only one surviving from antiquity – were buried and carbonized by the deadly eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD and are too fragile to be opened.

The items were examined at the Diamond Light Source facility in Oxfordshire, home to Britain’s synchrotron, a particle accelerator in which beams travel around a closed-loop path.

Electrons are accelerated to near light speeds until they emit light 10 billion times brighter than the sun, then directed into laboratories in ‘beamlines’ which allow scientists to study minute specimens using x-ray beams in extreme detail without damaging them.

“The idea is essentially like a CT scanner where you would take an image of a person, a three-dimensional image of a person and you can slice through it to see the different organs,” said Laurent Chapon, physical science director of Diamond Light Source.

“We… shine very intense light through (the scroll) and then detect on the other side a number of two-dimensional images. From that we reconstruct a three-dimensional volume of the object… to actually read the text in a non-destructive manner,” Chapon said.

The ink on the scrolls is difficult to see, even through a synchrotron, because it is carbon-based like the papyrus it is written on. But scientists hope the density of the paper will be different where written characters are present.

By scanning the fragments where characters are visible, they hope to create a machine-learning algorithm that will decipher what is written on the scrolls.

The data generated by the process will be analysed by scientists at Kentucky University in the United States using advanced computing techniques to decipher the scrolls’ contents.

“The library at Herculaneum was the only library that survived from antiquity and because of that the material inside is extremely valuable,” said Brent Seales, professor of computer science at Kentucky University.

“Texts from the ancient world are rare and precious, and they simply cannot be revealed through any other known process.” (Reuters)

(Production: George Sargent)

China warns of consequences if UK offers residency to HK citizens

UNTV News   •   July 2, 2020

China’s foreign ministry said on Thursday (July 2) that Britain would bear all consequences for any move it took to offer Hong Kong citizens a path to settlement in the UK.

China reserved the right to act against Britain over the issue, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a daily briefing, without specifying what countermeasures Beijing might take.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday (July 1) that China’s imposition of a security law on Hong Kong was a “clear and serious” violation of the 1984 Joint Declaration and that Britain would offer around 3 million residents of the former colony a path to British citizenship. (Reuters)

(Production: Joseph Campbell, Wang Shubing)

Alarm raised in UK beach resort as huge crowds ignore COVID advice

UNTV News   •   June 26, 2020

Authorities in Bournemouth, a popular coastal town in southern England, declared a “major incident” on Thursday (June 25) over what they called the irresponsible behavior of crowds who had ignored public health guidance on coronavirus and badly overstretched local services.

The declaration came after visitors arrived in huge numbers in a spell of hot weather, resulting in gridlock on the roads, illegal overnight camping, excessive waste, anti-social behaviour and alcohol-fuelled fights.

Social distancing measures have been in place in Britain since March to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, although the rules are due to be significantly relaxed from July 4.

With pubs still closed, many people have been heading to parks and beaches to meet friends and drink alcohol, in some cases ignoring advice to keep two metres apart.

In Bournemouth, roads were obstructed by illegal parking, crews were abused as they attempted to empty overflowing bins and 33 tonnes of waste had to be removed from the stretch of coastline in and around the town on Thursday morning.

The emergency response will involve extra police patrols, security to protect rubbish collectors, additional parking enforcement, evictions of unauthorized campers and signage on approach roads warning people not to come. (Reuters)

(Production: Iona Serrapica, Yann Tessier)

British PM Johnson tests positive for coronavirus

UNTV News   •   March 27, 2020

British prime minister Boris Johnson making his first statement as prime minister in parliament. | Courtesy: Reuters

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Friday (March 27) he had tested positive for coronavirus and was self-isolating at Downing Street but would still lead the government’s response to the accelerating outbreak.

Johnson, 55, experienced mild symptoms on Thursday (March 26) – a day after he answered at the prime minister’s weekly question-and-answer session in parliament’s House of Commons chamber.

“I’ve taken a test. That has come out positive,” Johnson said in a video statement broadcast on Twitter. “I’ve developed mild symptoms of the coronavirus. That’s to say – a temperature and a persistent cough.”

“So I am working from home. I’m self-isolating,” Johnson said. “Be in no doubt that I can continue, thanks to the wizardry of modern technology, to communicate with all my top team to lead the national fightback against coronavirus.”

It was not immediately clear how many Downing Street staff and senior ministers would now need to isolate given that many have had contact with Johnson over recent days and weeks.

His finance minister, Rishi Sunak, was not self-isolating, a Treasury source said.

When Britain clapped health workers on Thursday evening, Johnson and Sunak came out of separate entrances on Downing Street and did not come into close contact, according to a Reuters photographer at the scene.

Nor was it immediately clear whether Johnson’s 32-year-old partner, Carrie Symonds, who is pregnant, had been tested. (Reuters)

(Production: Ben Dangerfield)

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