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

Robie de Guzman   •   October 3, 2019   •   268

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)

U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo in Ankara for talks on Turkey’s Syria offensive

Robie de Guzman   •   October 17, 2019

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listens to US President Donald J. Trump delivers remarks during a meeting with President of Italy Sergio Mattarella in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 16 October 2019. EPA-EFE/MICHAEL REYNOLDS / POOL

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Ankara on Thursday (October 17) as part of Washington’s efforts to convince Turkey to halt its offensive against Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria.

Turkey’s week-long assault has created a new humanitarian crisis in Syria with 160,000 civilians taking flight, a security alert over thousands of Islamic State fighters abandoned in Kurdish jails, and a political maelstrom at home for Trump.

Trump has been accused of abandoning Kurdish fighters, who were Washington’s main partners in the battle to dismantle Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in Syria, by withdrawing troops from the border as Turkey launched its offensive on Oct. 9.

Following a phone call with Erdogan, who has rejected calls for ceasefire or mediation, Trump dispatched top aides including Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Ankara for emergency talks to try to persuade Turkey to halt the offensive. (Reuters)

Britain clinches Brexit deal, Johnson now faces parliament challenge

Robie de Guzman   •   October 17, 2019

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (not pictured) at 10 Downing Street in London, Britain, 15 October 2019. EPA-EFE/ANDY RAIN / POOL

Britain clinched a last-minute Brexit deal with the European Union on Thursday (October 17), but still faced a challenge in getting it approved by parliament.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that Britain and the European Union had agreed a “great” new Brexit deal and urged lawmakers to approve it at the weekend.

“We’ve got a great new deal that takes back control,” Johnson said in a tweet.

Johnson is hoping to get approval for the agreement in a vote at an extraordinary session of the British parliament on Saturday, to pave the way for an orderly departure on October 31.

However, the Northern Irish party that Johnson needs to help ratify any agreement has refused to support the deal that was hammered out over weeks of negotiations.

The head of the main opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, said in Brussels he was “unhappy” with the deal and would vote against it. Lawmakers in his party said they had been told to vote for another referendum on Saturday.

Johnson has no majority in the 650-seat parliament, and in practice needs 320 votes to get a deal ratified this Saturday – in what will be the first Saturday session since the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982. The DUP have 10 votes.

The British parliament defeated similar deals struck by Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, three times.

Johnson won the top job by pledging to renegotiate May’s agreement, though he is reviving the bulk of it now, with changes to the protocol on how to treat the border between EU member Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland.

The uncertainty over parliament’s approval means that, two weeks before the latest date for the United Kingdom’s departure from the world’s largest trading bloc, the possible outcomes still range from an orderly departure to a chaotic exit or even another referendum that could reverse the entire endeavour.

It is unclear what Brexit will ultimately mean for the United Kingdom and the European project – built on the ruins of World War Two as a way to integrate economic power and thus end centuries of European bloodshed.

Johnson, who was the face of the campaign to leave the EU in Britain’s 2016 referendum, has repeatedly said he will not ask for a delay – even though parliament has passed a law to oblige him to do just that if it has not agreed and ratified a deal by Saturday. (Reuters)

Pelosi, Trump exchange ‘meltdown’ barbs over meeting on U.S. policy in Syria

Robie de Guzman   •   October 17, 2019

US Speaker of the House Democrat Nancy Pelosi delivers remarks to members of the news media outside the West Wing of the White House following a meeting between US President Donald J. Trump and Congressional leaders, in Washington, DC, USA, 16 October 2019. Trump met with Congressional leaders to discuss the US withdrawal from Syria. EPA-EFE/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Democratic leaders on Wednesday (October 16) cut short a meeting with Republican President Donald Trump after he had a “meltdown” over a House of Representatives vote condemning his Syria withdrawal and showed no signs of having a plan to deal with a crisis there.

Trump called Pelosi a “third-rate politician” and the meeting in the White House deteriorated into a diatribe, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters.

Later, in remarks to reporters on Capitol Hill, Pelosi said that Trump actually called her a “third-grade” politician.

“What we witnessed on the part of the president was a meltdown. Sad to say,” Pelosi had said upon leaving.

Trump posted on Twitter on Wednesday night – “Nervous Nancy’s unhinged meltdown!” with a photo of Pelosi standing up and pointing at him during the meeting.

The Democrats exited the meeting complaining that they were expecting to hear Trump provide details on a plan for dealing with an unfolding “crisis” in Syria but instead were subjected to “derogatory” language from him about congressional Democrats and Democratic former President Barack Obama.

White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham, in a statement, called Pelosi’s decision to walk out “baffling but not surprising.”

She added that after Democratic leaders “chose to storm out,” remaining Republican leaders held a productive meeting.

Trump’s decision to withdraw American forces ahead of a Turkish offensive last week into northern Syria against U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters, removing their protection, has been roundly criticized, even by fellow Republicans. The Americans and the Kurds had fought alongside each other against Islamic State militants, some of whom were captured and jailed under Kurdish control in Syria.

Pelosi said Trump was upset at the start of the closed meeting because so many Republicans joined Democrats to vote for a resolution condemning his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from northeastern Syria.

The vote was 354 to 60, with dozens of Trump’s fellow Republicans joining the majority Democrats. The split underscored deep unhappiness in Congress over Trump’s action, which many lawmakers view as abandoning loyal Kurdish fighters.

“I think that vote – the size of the vote, more than 2-1 of the Republicans voted to oppose what the president did – probably got to the president. Because he was shaken up by it,” Pelosi said after emerging from the White House.

“And that’s why we couldn’t continue in the meeting because he was just not relating to the reality of it.” (Reuters)

(Production: Kristin Neubauer)

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