How Ancient Scrolls, Charred by the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, Are Now Being Read by Particle Accelerators, 3D Modeling & Artificial Intelligence

Everyone knows that Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, entombing the Roman town of Pompeii in ash. Almost everyone knows that it also did the same to several other towns, including wealthy Herculaneum on the Bay of Naples. Countless scholars have dedicated their lives to studying these unusually well-preserved first-century ruins and the historical treasures found within. We now understand a great deal about the layout, the structures, the social life of Herculaneum, but some aspects remain unknowable, such as the contents of the scrolls, charred beyond recognition, that fill its libraries — or at least that remained unknowable until now.

"In the 18th century, workmen employed by King Charles III of Spain, then in charge of much of southern Italy, discovered the remains of a magnificent villa, thought to have belonged to Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus (known as Piso), a wealthy statesman and the father-in-law of Julius Caesar," writes Smithsonian's Jo Marchant. There, "in what was to become one of the most frustrating archaeological discoveries ever, the workmen also found approximately 2,000 papyrus scrolls." But since the heat and gases of Vesuvius had turned them "black and hard like lumps of coal"  — and indeed, some of Charles III's workmen mistook them for coal and threw them away — attempts to open them "created a mess of fragile flakes that yielded only brief snippets of text."

The time of Charles III barely had sufficient know-how to avoid destroying the scrolls of Herculaneum, let alone to read them. That task turns out to demand even the most cutting-edge technology we have today, including custom-made 3D modeling software, artificial intelligence, and the most advanced x-ray facilities in existence. Marchant's article focuses on an American computer scientist named Brent Seales (Professor and Chair of Computer Science at the University of Kentucky), whose quest to read the Herculaneum scrolls has become a quest to develop a method to virtually "unroll" them. This requires not just the computing power and logic to determine how these blackened lumps (Seales calls two of them "Fat Bastard" and "Banana Boy") might originally have opened up, but the most advanced particle accelerators in the world to scan them in the first place.

You can read more about Seales' work with the Herculaneum scrolls, which after twenty years has shown real promise, at Mental Floss and Newsweek. Though quite expensive (demand for "beam time" on a particle accelerator being what it is), hugely time-consuming, and occasionally, in Seales' words, "excruciatingly frustrating," the invention of a reliable method for reading these and other seemingly lost texts from antiquity could make substantial additions to what we think of as the canon. (The texts revealed so far have had to do with the ideas of Epicurus, a primer on whose philosophy we've previously featured on Open Culture.) But gaining the fullest possible understanding of what our ancestors knew in the first century may first require a few more 21st-century developments in physics and computer science yet.

via Mental Floss

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell Discovered Radio Pulsars in 1974, But the Credit Went to Her Advisor; In 2018, She Gets Her Due, Winning a $3 Million Physics Prize

Say you made a Nobel-worthy scientific discovery and the prize went to your thesis supervisor instead. How would you take it? Probably not as well as Jocelyn Bell Burnell, discoverer of the first radio pulsars, to whom that very thing happened in 1974. "Demarcation disputes between supervisor and student are always difficult, probably impossible to resolve," she said a few years later. "It is the supervisor who has the final responsibility for the success or failure of the project. We hear of cases where a supervisor blames his student for a failure, but we know that it is largely the fault of the supervisor. It seems only fair to me that he should benefit from the successes, too."

But now, 44 years later, Bell Burnell's achievement has brought a different prize her way: the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, to be precise, and the $3 million that comes with it, all of which she will donate "to fund women, under-represented ethnic minority and refugee students to become physics researchers." "Like the stars of Hidden Figures and DNA researcher Rosalind Franklin, Bell Burnell’s personal story embodies the challenges faced by women in scientific fields," write the Washington Post's Sarah Kaplan and Antonia Noori Farzan. "Bell Burnell, who was born in Northern Ireland in 1943, had to fight to take science classes after age 12."




Rejecting an expected life of cookery and needlework, Bell Burnell "read her father's astronomy books cover to cover, teaching herself the jargon and grappling with complex concepts until she felt she could comprehend the universe. She complained to her parents, who complained to the school, which ultimately allowed her to attend lab along with two other girls. At the end of the semester, Bell Burnell ranked first in the class." Still, by the time she arrived at Cambridge University for graduate school, she "was certain someone had made a mistake admitting her." Her subsequent work there on one of "the most important astronomical finds of the 20th century," which you can see her talk about in the clip above, should have dispelled that notion.

But as Josh Jones wrote here on Open Culture last month, Bell Burnell was a victim of the "Matilda effect," named for suffragist and abolitionist Matilda Joslyn Gage, which identifies the "denial of recognition to women scientists" seen throughout the history of science. The new generation of prizes like the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, founded in 2012 by physicist-entrepreneur Yuri Milner, have the potential to counteract the Matilda effect, but many other Matildas have yet to be recognized. "I am not myself upset about it," as Bell Burnell put it in 1977 when asked about her non-reception of the Nobel. "After all, I am in good company, am I not!"

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

MIT Students Solve the Spaghetti Breaking Mystery That Stumped Richard Feynman

Even thirty years after his death, Richard Feynman remains one of the most beloved minds in physics in part because of how much attention he paid to things other than physics: drawing and paintingcracking safes, playing the bongos, breaking spaghetti. But a physics enthusiast might object, and reasonably so, that all those activities actually have a great deal to do with physics, given the physical phenomena they all demonstrate and on which they all depend. In recent years, considerable scientific attention has even gone toward spaghetti-breaking, inspiring as it did Feynman — and computer scientist Danny Hillis, who happened to be in the kitchen with him — to pose a long-unanswerable question: How come it always breaks into a million pieces when you snap it?

Maybe spaghetti doesn't always break into a million pieces, exactly, but it never breaks in two. Discovering the secret to a clean two-part break did require a million of something: a million frames per second, specifically, shot by a camera aimed at a purpose-built spaghetti-breaking device. The results of the research, a project of students Ronald Heisser and Vishal Patil during their time at MIT, came out in a paper co-authored by MIT's Norbert Stoop and Université Aix Marseille's Emmanuel Villermaux, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The team found, writes MIT News' Jennifer Chu, "that if a stick [of spaghetti] is twisted past a certain critical degree, then slowly bent in half, it will, against all odds, break in two."

As for why spaghetti breaks into so many pieces without the twist, a question taken on by the Smarter Every Day video just above, French scientists Basile Audoly and Sebastien Neukirch won the Ig Nobel Prize by figuring that out in 2005: "When a stick is bent evenly from both ends, it will break near the center, where it is most curved. This initial break triggers a 'snap-back' effect and a bending wave, or vibration, that further fractures the stick." If you twist the stick first, "the snap-back, in which the stick will spring back in the opposite direction from which it was bent, is weakened in the presence of twist. And, the twist-back, where the stick will essentially unwind to its original straightened configuration, releases energy from the rod, preventing additional fractures."

So now we know. But the fruits of what might strike some as an obsessive and pointless quest could well further the science of fracturing, which Patil describes to the Washington Post as an outwardly “chaotic and random” process. This research could lead, as Chu writes, to a better "understanding of crack formation and how to control fractures in other rod-like materials such as multifiber structures, engineered nanotubes, or even microtubules in cells." That's all a long way from the kitchen, certainly, but even the most revolutionary advancements of knowledge grow out of simple curiosity, an impulse felt even in the most mundane or frivolous situations. Richard Feynman understood that better than most, hence subsequent generations of scientists' desire to pick up whatever piqued his interest — even broken bits of Barilla No. 5.

via MIT News

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Steve Martin & Robin Williams Riff on Math, Physics, Einstein & Picasso in a Smart Comedy Routine

Back in 2002, Stanford University mathematics professor Robert Osserman chatted with comedian and banjo player extraordinaire Steve Martin in San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre. The event was called “Funny Numbers” and it was intended to deliver an off-kilter discussion on math. Boy did it deliver.

The first half of the discussion was loose and relaxed. Martin talked about his writing, banjos and his childhood interest in math. “In high school, I used to be able to make magic squares," said Martin. "I like anything kind of 'jumbly.' I like anagrams. What else do I like? I like sex."




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Then Robin Williams, that manic ball of energy, showed up. As you can see from the five videos throughout this post, the night quickly spiraled into comic madness.

They riffed on the Osbournes, Henry Kissinger, number theory, and physics. “Schrödinger, pick up your cat,” barks Williams at the end of a particularly inspired tear. “He’s alive. He’s dead. What a pet!”

When Martin and Williams read passages from Martin’s hit play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile Williams read his part at different points as if he were Marlon Brando, Peter Lorre and Elmer Fudd. At another time, Williams and Martin riffed on the number zero. Williams, for once acting as the straight man, asked Osserman, "I have one quick question, up to the Crusades, the number zero didn't exist, right? In Western civilization.” To which Martin bellowed, “That is a lie! How dare you imply that the number zero…oh, I think he’s right.”

The videos are weirdly glitchy, though the audio is just fine. And the comedy is completely hilarious and surprisingly thought provoking.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in September, 2015.

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

Einstein’s Theory of Relativity Explained in One of the Earliest Science Films Ever Made (1923)

Albert Einstein developed his theory of special relativity in 1905, and then mentally mapped out his theory of general relativity between 1907 and 1915. For years to come, the rest of the world would try to catch up with Einstein, trying to understand the gist, let alone the full implications, of his groundbreaking ideas.

Above, you can watch one such attempt. Produced by Max and David Fleischer, best known for their Betty Boop and Superman cartoons, The Einstein Theory of Relativity used the power of animation to explain relativity to a broad, non-scientific audience in 1923. One of the first educational science films ever made, the silent animated film was created with the assistance of science journalist Garrett P. Serviss and other experts who had a handle on Einstein's theories. According to a biography of Max Fleischer, the film was "an out-and-out success." "The critics and the public applauded it. And Einstein did too, apparently deeming it an "excellent attempt to illustrate an abstract subject."

Watch the short film above. And find it added to our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc.

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Newly Unearthed Footage Shows Albert Einstein Driving a Flying Car (1931)

During his lifetime, Albert Einstein apparently never learned to drive a car--something that also held true for Vladimir Nabokov, Ray Bradbury, Elizabeth Bishop, and Jack Kerouac. But he did manage to experience the thrill of getting behind the wheel, at least once. Above, watch a newly-discovered home movie of Einstein and his second wife, Elsa, visiting the Warner Bros. soundstage on February 3, 1931. The following day, The New York Times published this report:

Professor Einstein was surprised tonight into loud and long laughter.

Hollywood demonstrated its principles of "relativity," how it makes things seem what they are not, by use of a dilapidated motor car.

At the First National studio, German technicians persuaded Professor Einstein to change his mind about not being photographed and photographed him in the old car with Frau Elsa, his wife. He cannot drive a car.

Tonight the German technicians brought the film to the Einstein bungalow. The lights went out.

Then the ancient automobile appeared on the screen with Einstein at the wheel, driving Frau Elsa on a sight-seeing tour.

Down Broadway, Los Angeles they drove, then to the beaches. Suddenly the car rose like an airplane, and as Einstein took one hand from the wheel to point out the scenery, the Rocky Mountains appeared below. Then the car landed on familiar soil and the drive continued through Germany.

It was just a Hollywood trick of double exposure and a thrilling comedy, but not for the public. The master film was destroyed, and the only copy was given to the Einsteins.

That one surviving copy of the film eventually ended up in the archives at Lincoln Center, where it sat unnoticed for decades, until Becca Bender, an archivist, stumbled up on it last year. And fortunately now we can all enjoy that light moment shot so long ago.

To learn more about the discovery of the 1931 film, watch the video below. Or read this article over at From the Grapevine.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

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Stephen Hawking’s Final Theory of the Cosmos Now Published & Available Online

Image by NASA, via Wikimedia Commons

In the weeks before he died, Stephen Hawking wrote what would be his final theory of the cosmos. Co-written with Belgian physicist Thomas Hertog, and now published in the Journal of High Energy Physics, "A smooth exit from eternal inflation?" asserts that "reality may be made up of multiple universes, but each one may not be so different to our own." Or so that's how the theory gets translated into colloquial English by The Guardian. You can read an abstract of the theory here, or the complete published version here.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

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