Hidden Ancient Greek Medical Text Read for the First Time in a Thousand Years — with a Particle Accelerator

Image by Farrin Abbott/SLAC, via Flickr Commons

Long before humanity had paper to write on, we had papyrus. Made of the pith of the wetland plant Cyperus papyrus and first used in ancient Egypt, it made for quite a step up in terms of convenience from, say, the stone tablet. And not only could you write on it, you could rewrite on it. In that sense it was less the paper of its day than the first-generation video tape: given the expense of the stuff, it often made sense to erase the content already written on a piece of papyrus in order to record something more timely. But you couldn't completely obliterate the previous layers of text, a fact that has long held out promise to scholars of ancient history looking to expand their field of primary sources.

The decidedly non-ancient solution: particle accelerators. Researchers at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) recently used one to find the hidden text in what's now called the Syriac Galen Palimpsest. It contains, somewhere deep in its pages, “On the Mixtures and Powers of Simple Drugs,” an "important pharmaceutical text that would help educate fellow Greek-Roman doctors," writes Amanda Solliday at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.




Originally composed by Galen of Pergamon, "an influential physician and a philosopher of early Western medicine," the work made its way into the 6th-century Islamic world through a translation into a language between Greek and Arabic called Syriac.

Image by Farrin Abbott/SLAC, via Flickr Commons

Alas, "despite the physician’s fame, the most complete surviving version of the translated manuscript was erased and written over with hymns in the 11th century – a common practice at the time." Palimpsest, the word coined to describe such texts written, erased, and written over on pre-paper materials like papyrus and parchment, has long since had a place in the lexicon as a metaphor for anything long-historied, multi-layered, and fully understandable only with effort. The Stanford team's effort involved a technique called X-ray fluorescence (XRF), whose rays "knock out electrons close to the nuclei of metal atoms, and these holes are filled with outer electrons resulting in characteristic X-ray fluorescence that can be picked up by a sensitive detector."

Those rays "penetrate through layers of text and calcium, and the hidden Galen text and the newer religious text fluoresce in slightly different ways because their inks contain different combinations of metals such as iron, zinc, mercury and copper." Each of the leather-bound book's 26 pages takes ten hours to scan, and the enormous amounts of new data collected will presumably occupy a variety of experts on the ancient world — on the Greek and Islamic civilizations, on their languages, on their medicine — for much longer thereafter. But you do have to wonder: what kind of unimaginably advanced technology will our descendants a millennium and a half years from now be using to read all of the stuff we thought we'd erased?

via SLAC

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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.

150 Courses Starting at Stanford Continuing Studies Next Week: Explore the Catalogue of Campus and Online Courses

Quick fyi: I spend my days at Stanford Continuing Studies, where we've developed a rich lineup of online courses, many of which will get started next week. The courses aren't free. But they're first rate, giving adult students--no matter where they live--the chance to work with dedicated teachers and students.

The catalogue includes a large number of online Creative Writing courses, covering the Novel, the Memoir, Creative Nonfiction, Travel Writing, Poetry and more. For the professional, the program offers online business courses in subjects like Product Management for the Internet of ThingsThe Business of Self-Driving CarsValue Investing: An Introduction, Visual Thinking: Working with Pictures, and Mergers and AcquisitionsAnd there's a growing number of online Liberal Arts courses too. Take for example The History and Geography of Current Global EventsRevolution: The Beatles’ Innovative Studio Years (1965–1967)Ethics for Artificially Intelligent Robots, Byzantine Art, and The Great Discoveries That Changed Modern Medicine.

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, check out the larger catalogue. Stanford Continuing Studies has 150+ courses getting started this Spring quarter (next week), many taking place in Stanford's classrooms. For anyone living outside of California, check out the program's list of online courses here.

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How to Get Over the Anxiety of Public Speaking?: Watch the Stanford Video, “Think Fast, Talk Smart,” Viewed Already 11 Million Times

How many of us fear public speaking more than death: four out of five, nine out of ten, 99 out of 100? We've all heard a variety of statistics, all of them suggesting the formidability — perceived or real — of the task of getting up and talking in front of other people. But perhaps you'll get an even clearer sense of that from the number 11,175,098: the total view count, as of this writing, racked up by "Think Fast, Talk Smart," an hour-long talk on public speaking techniques by communication coach and Stanford Graduate School of Business lecturer Matt Abrahams.

The pedants among us, myself included, will have already taken note of that linguistic infelicity in the very title of the talk, but Abrahams himself wastes little time pointing it out himself. He also points out its value: you've got to catch the attention of your audience, and a deliberately made mistake (or even a non-deliberately made one) catches it as well as anything.




He goes on to elaborate on various other techniques we can use not just to get other people listening well, but to get ourselves talking well, the first priority being to get ourselves to stop tripping over our innate desire to talk perfectly.

Abrahams leads his audience through several short "games," instructing them to do things like explaining their weekends to one another by spelling out loud and selling one another Slinkys, with the underlying goal of breaking the habits that have so often impeded our ability to simply get up and speak. He also provides physical techniques, like doing push-ups or taking a walk around the block before giving a talk in order to get your mind more "present," and intellectual ones, like always adhering to a structure, no matter how simple and no matter how ordinary the situation. ("I practice these structures on my kids," he notes.)

Taking the wider view, we shouldn't look at speaking as a challenge, according to Abrahams, but as a chance to explain and influence. "A Q&A session is an opportunity for you," he says, and practicing what he preaches, he opens one up at the end of the talk, underscoring that we can improve our public speaking skills by doing as he says, but even more so by doing as he does. Some of those more than eleven million views surely come from people who have watched more than once, studying Abrahams' own use of language, both verbal and body. He also demonstrates a good deal of humor, though brevity, as Shakespeare wrote, being the soul of wit, you might consider chasing his talk with the four-minute Big Think video on the same subject just above.

Abrahams regularly teaches courses on Public Speaking at Stanford Continuing Studies. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, give his classes a look. Also see his books, Speaking Up without Freaking Out: 50 Techniques for Confident and Compelling Presenting.

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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.

170+ Courses Starting at Stanford Continuing Studies This Week: Explore the Catalogue of Campus and Online Courses

Quick fyi: I spend my days at Stanford Continuing Studies, where we've developed a rich lineup of online courses, many of which will get started this week. The courses aren't free. But they're first rate, giving adult students--no matter where they live--the chance to work with dedicated teachers and students.

The catalogue includes a large number of online Creative Writing courses, covering the Novel, the Memoir, Creative Nonfiction, Food Writing, Poetry and more. For the professional, the program offers online business courses in subjects like Project Management, Business Communication, Design Thinking, Creating Startups and Value Investing. And there's a growing number of online Liberal Arts Courses too. Take for example Drawing Inspiration: Developing a Creative Practice; The Geology and Wines of California and France; and Cyber Technologies and Their World-Changing Disruptions: Election Hacking, Fake News, and Beyond.

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, check out the larger catalogue. Stanford Continuing Studies has 170+ courses getting started this Winter quarter, many taking place in Stanford's classrooms. Here are a few on-campus courses I might recommend: Leaders Who Made the 20th CenturyJames Joyce's Ulysses, and Stanford Saturday University: 2018.

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Hear the Hagia Sophia’s Awe-Inspiring Acoustics Get Recreated with Computer Simulations, and Let Yourself Get Transported Back to the Middle Ages

The technology used to produce, record, and process music has become ever more sophisticated and awe-inspiring, especially in the capability of software to emulate real instruments and acoustic environments. Digital emulation, or “modeling,” as it’s called, doesn’t simply mimic the sounds of guitar amplifiers, pianos, or synthesizers. At its best, it reproduces the feel of an aural experience, its textures and sonic dimensions, while also adding a seemingly infinite degree of flexibility.

When it comes to a technology called “convolution reverb,” we can virtually feel the air pressure of sound in a physical space, such that “listening in may be viewed as much as a spatial experience as it is a temporal one.” So notes Stanford’s Icons of Sound, a collaboration between the University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) and the Department of Art & Art History. The researchers in this joint project have combined resources to create a performance of Byzantine chant from the 6th century CE, simulated to sound like it takes place inside a prime acoustic environment designed for this very music, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.




Built by the emperor Justinian between 532 and 537, when the city was Constantinople, the massive church (later mosque and now state-run museum) “has an extraordinarily large nave spreading over 70 meters in length; it is surrounded by colonnaded aisles and galleries. Marble covers the floor and walls.” Its center is “crowned by a dome glittering in gold mosaics and rising 56 meters above the ground.” The effect of the building's heavy, reflective surfaces and its architectural enormity “challenges our contemporary expectation of the intelligibility of language.”

We are accustomed to hear the spoken or sung word clearly in dry, non-reverberant spaces in order to decode the encoded message. By contrast, the wet acoustics of Hagia Sophia blur the intelligibility of the message, making words sound like emanation, emerging from the depth of the sea. 

The Icons of Sound team has reconstructed the underwater acoustics of the Hagia Sophia using convolution reverb techniques and what are called “impulse responses”—recordings of the reverberations in particular spaces, which are then loaded into software to digitally simulate the same psychoacoustics, a process known as “auralization.” CCRMA describes an impulse response as an “imprint of the space,” which is then applied to sounds recorded in other environments. Typically, the process is used in studio music production, but Icons of Sound brought it to live performance at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall last year, and made the group Cappella Romana sound like their voices had transported from the Holy Roman Empire.

“To recreate the unique sound,” writes Kat Eschner at Smithsonian, “performers sang while listening to the simulated acoustics of Hagia Sophia through earphones. Their singing was then put through the same acoustic simulator and played during the live performance through speakers in the concert hall.” As you can hear in these clips, the result is immersive and profound. One can only imagine what it must have been like live. To complete the effect, the production used “atmospheric reinforcement,” notes Stanford Live, “via projected images and lighting." The audience was “immersed in an environment where the unique interplay of music, light, art, and sacred text has the potential to induce a quasi-mystical state of revelation and wonder.”

The only sounds the researchers were able to record in the actual space of the ancient church were four popping balloons. By layering the reverberations captured in these recordings, and compensating for the different decay times inside the Bing, they were able to approximate the acoustic properties of the building. You can hear several more audio samples recorded in different places at this site. In the video above, associate professor of medieval art Bissera Pentcheva explains how and why the Hagia Sophia shapes sound and light the way it does. While purists might prefer to see a performance in the actual space, one must admit, the ability to virtually deliver a version of it to potentially any concert hall in the world is pretty cool.

via The Smithsonian

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

Atheist Stanford Biologist Robert Sapolsky Explains How Religious Beliefs Reduce Stress

Let’s put aside for a moment the question of whether, or which, religion is “true.” If you think this question is answerable, you are likely already a partisan and have taken certain claims on faith. Say we ask whether religion is good for you? What say the scientists? As always, it depends. For one thing, the kind of religion matters. A 2013 study in the Journal of Religion and Health, for example, found that “belief in a punitive God was positively associated with four psychiatric symptoms,” including general anxiety and paranoia, while “belief in a benevolent God was negatively associated with four psychiatric symptoms.”

So, a certain kind of religion may not be particularly good for us—psychologically and socially—but other kinds of faith can have very beneficial mental health effects. Author Robert Wright, visiting professor of religion and psychology at Princeton, has argued in his lectures and his bestselling book Why Buddhism is True that the 2500-year-old Eastern religion can lead to enlightenment, of a sort. (He also argues that Buddhism and science mostly agree.)




And famed Stanford neuroendocrinologist and atheist Robert Sapolsky, author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, makes an interesting case in the Big Think video above that “this religion business” humans have come up with—this form of “metamagical thinking”—has provided a distinct evolutionary advantage.

Religion seems to be an almost universal phenomenon, as Sapolsky—who is himself an atheist—freely admits. “90 to 95% of people,” he says, “believe in some sort of omnipotent something or other, every culture out there has it.” Rarely do two cultures agree on any of the specifics, but religions in general, he claims, “are wonderful mechanisms for reducing stress."

It is an awful, terrifying world out there where bad things happen, we’re all going to die eventually. And believing that there is something, someone, responsible for it at least gives some stress reducing attributes built around understanding causality. If on top of that, you believe that there is not only something out there responsible for all this, but that there is a larger purpose to it, that’s another level of stress-reducing explanation.

Furthermore, says Sapolsky, a benevolent deity offers yet another level of stress reduction due to feelings of “control and predictability.” But benevolence can be partial to specific in-groups. If you think you belong to one of them, you’ll feel even safer and more reassured. For its ability to create social groups and explain reality in tidy ways, Religion has “undeniable health benefits.” This is borne out by the research—a fact Sapolsky admits he finds “infuriating.” He understands why religion exists, and cannot deny its benefits. He also cannot believe any of it.

Sapolsky grudgingly admits in the short clip above that he is awed by the faith of people like Sister Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking fame, despite and because of her “irrational, nutty,” and stubborn insistence on the impossible. He has also previously argued that many forms of religiosity can be indistinguishable from mental illness, but they are, paradoxically, highly adaptive in a chaotic, world we know very little about.

In his interview at the top, he pursues another line of thought. If 95% of the human population believes in some kind form of supernatural agency, “a much more biologically interesting question to me is, ‘what’s up with the 5% of atheists who don’t do that?’”

It’s a question he doesn’t answer, and one that may assume too much about that 95%—a significant number of whom may simply be riding the bandwagon or keeping their heads down in highly religious environments rather than truly believing religious truth claims. In any case, on balance, the answer to our question of whether religion is good for us, may be a qualified yes. Believers in benevolence can rejoice in the stress-reducing properties of their faith. It might just save their lives, if not their souls. Stress, as Sapolsky explains in the documentary above, is exponentially harder on the human organism than belief in invisible all-powerful beings. Whether or not such beings exist is another question entirely.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Free: A Crash Course in Design Thinking from Stanford’s Design School

If you ask a few of today's youngsters what they want to do when they grow up, the word "design" will almost certainly come up more than once. Ask them what design itself means to them, and you'll get a variety of answers from the vaguely general to the ultra-specialized. The concept of design — and of designing, and of being a designer — clearly holds a strong appeal, but how to define it in a useful way that still applies in as many cases as possible?

One set of answers comes from the 90-minute "Crash Course in Design Thinking" above, a production of Stanford University's Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, or d.schoolThe Interaction Design Foundation defines design thinking as "an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions we might have, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding." In a brief history of the subject there, Rikke Dam and Teo Siang write that "business analysts, engineers, scientists and creative individuals have been focused on the methods and processes of innovation for decades."




Stanford comes into the picture in the early 1990s, with the formation of the Design Thinking-oriented firm IDEO and its " design process modelled on the work developed at the Stanford Design School." In other words, someone using design thinking, on the job at IDEO or elsewhere, knows how to approach new, vague, or otherwise tricky problems in various sectors and work step-by-step toward solutions. D.school, with their mission to "build on methods from across the field of design to create learning experiences that help people unlock their creative potential and apply it to the world," aims to instill the principles of design thinking in its students. And this crash course, through an activity called "The Gift-Giving Project," offers a glimpse of how they do it.

You can just watch the video and get a sense of the "design cycle" as d.school teaches it, or you can get hands-on by assembling the simple required materials and a group of your fellow design enthusiasts (make sure you add up to an even number). Youngster or otherwise, you may well emerge from the experience, a mere hour and a half later, with not just new problem-solving habits of mind but a newfound zeal for design, however you define it.

"Crash Course in Design Thinking" will be added to our collection, 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities. You can find a number of MOOCS on design thinking and design at Coursera.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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