The particle accelerator experiment that could rewrite the history of printing


I’m a little nervous. In my right hand I hold a priceless piece of human history. And this is not hyperbole. It is a patinated black binder, adorned with gold text on the front. In a Gothic-style text, it reads “A leaf from the Gutenberg Bible (1450 – 1455)”.

Yes, this Gutenberg’s Bible. These original pages, which date from the 15th century, arrived at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Northern California to be blown away by a high-powered X-ray. In addition to pages from the Bible, a 15th-century Korean Confucian text, a page from the Canterbury Tales written in the 14th century, and other Western and Eastern documents are expected to endure the barrage. Researchers hope that within the pages of these priceless documents lie clues to the evolution of one of mankind’s most important inventions: the printing press.

A page from an original Gutenberg Bible (1450-1455 AD) is scanned by a beam from SLAC’s synchrotron particle accelerator.

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

“What we’re trying to learn is the basic composition of the inks, papers, and perhaps residues of the typefaces used in these Western and Eastern prints,” said imagery consultant Michael Toth.

For centuries, it was widely believed that Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press around AD 1440 in Germany. He is believed to have printed 180 Bibles (fewer than 50 exist today). But more recently, historians have uncovered evidence that Korean Buddhists began printing around 1250 AD.


A page from the Gutenberg Bible of the First and Second Epistles of Peter, mid 15th century.

Jacqueline Ramseyer Orrell/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

“What is not known is if these two inventions were completely separate or if there was a flow of information,” said Uwe Bergmann, professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin. “If there had been a flow of information, it would have been, of course, from Korea, west towards Gutenberg.”

To put it more clearly: Was Gutenberg’s invention based, at least in part, on Eastern technology? This is where the Stanford synchrotron radiation light source Between.


The Spring and Autumn Annals, Confucius, c. 1442.

Jacqueline Ramseyer Orrell/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

A synchrotron is a particle accelerator that shoots electrons down a huge ring-shaped tunnel to generate X-rays (as opposed to SLAC’s most famous linear particle accelerator, the two-mile-long LCLS). These X-rays allow scientists to study the structural and chemical properties of matter. To see exactly how they use SSRL to study priceless documents, watch the video above.

By shooting the SSRL’s human-hair-thin X-ray beam at a block of text on a document, researchers can create two-dimensional chemical maps that detail the elements present in each pixel. This is a technique called X-ray fluorescence imaging, or XRF.


The Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Light Source (SSRL) at the SLAC Accelerator National Laboratory.

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

“The atoms in this sample are emitting light, and we can track which elements that light must be coming from on the periodic table,” said Minhal Gardesi, a PhD student working on the project.

Although SSRL’s x-rays are powerful, they do not damage documents, giving scientists a holistic view of the molecules that make up ancient texts. They also give them the ability to search for traces of metals that historians believe should not be found in the ink. This would indicate that they probably came from the printing press themselves. “That would mean we could learn something about the alloys that were used in Korea and by Gutenberg, and then maybe later by others,” Bergmann said.


Scientists can use X-rays to create two-dimensional chemical maps of ancient texts like this Confucian document.

Mike Toth/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

If they find similarities in the chemical compositions of the documents, it could contribute to ongoing research into the differences and similarities in printing technologies, and whether there has been an exchange of information from the cultures of Asia. from East to West.

However, all the scientists I spoke with about the project made it clear that even if similarities between the two papers were found, it would not definitively prove that one technology influenced the other.

The documents are on loan from private collections, the Stanford Library and archives in Korea. The research at SLAC is part of a larger project led by UNESCO called From Jikji to Gutenberg. The conclusions will be presented during the Library of Congress next April.

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