since moved to the National University of Singapore.">

Starting “Science Chat” in 2015 with stories ancient and modern

By Steve Pointing 23/01/2015


Here is a summary of my first ‘Science Chat’ feature of the year for TV3’s Firstline show, which resumed this week on TV3 after the summer break
The ancient: New insight to worlds oldest writing
The wealthy Roman resort town of Herculaneum was buried in 79AD by the massive eruption from Mt Vesuvius that also engulfed Pompeii.  Excavations some 260 years ago revealed a library with over 800 papyrus scrolls, and thought to represent the only surviving scrolls from ancient times.  Unfortunately these proved to be so badly charred by the 300oC ash cloud that several efforts to unroll and read them have ended in destruction of the fragile artefacts.  Excitingly science now appears to have come to the rescue, and for the first time the scrolls are starting to yield their secrets.
A phase contrast X-ray tomography approach was employed, that allowed researchers to measure the indentations in the papyrus form the original scribe’s writing (since the ink and papyrus were too badly charred to be distinguished from one another). So far 24 letters have been resolved, although the straight criss-cross woven texture of the papyrus meant that curved letter indentations have generally been more readily interpreted than straight letters. 
The analysis so far was enough for scholars to conclude one scroll describes the work of the Ancient Greek philosopher Philodemus, and advocated the pursuit of pleasure as the key to happiness – so maybe expect some racy revelations in the near future!
The work appears in the journal Nature Communications: http://www.nature.com/ncomms/2015/150120/ncomms6895/full/ncomms6895.html
And the modern: Geologists agree on new geological age created by mankind
Significant changes in Earth’s history leave indelible signatures in the geological record, so for example the well-known ‘Jurassic’ was an era characterised by large dinosaurs which appear in the fossil record.  The newest geological era, the Anthropocene, was proposed by Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen over 15 years ago.  This name was proposed for the modern age where mankind has indelibly altered the planetary environment, and candidates for the start of this era range form the dawn of civilisation, to the industrial revolution, and more recently the ‘great acceleration’ of the post war industrial world.  A key to credibility and usefulness for any geological age is that a ‘golden spike’ can be irrefutably used to identify that period in geological time.  A group of 26 influential geologists recently met at the University of Leicester (one of my almer mata) and surprisingly they not only achieved consensus on what that golden spike is, but also a precise date for it!  The marker in question is the change in earth chemistry caused by nuclear detonations, with the first one occurring in New Mexico on July 16th 1945.  Astonishingly between then and the test ban in 1988 detonations continued worldwide at an average rate of one every 9.6 days – which leaves a very unambiguous signal for future generations of geologists!