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Science and the Shroud

Science and the Shroud (Susan Wojciechowski — free-lance writer) “And he bought fine linen, and took Him down and wrapped Him in the linen and laid Him in a sepulchre which was hewn out of rock.” (Mark 15:46). They seem strikingly out of sync with each other — on the one hand, a sacred piece of linen regarded by some to be the burial shroud of Jesus Christ, and on the other, a 12 million-volt nuclear accelerator capable of producing a particle beam with a speed of 2,000 miles per second. Yet Harry Gove hopes to bring the two together. Using a scientific testing technique he developed, Gove intends to definitively establish the age of the cloth, after its being surrounded for 600 years in mystery. The cloth in question is the much publicised, controversial Shroud of Turin. Gove, 64, is a nuclear physicist and director of the University of Rochester’s Nuclear Structure Research Laboratory. To understand the immense impact of the test Gove hopes to do on what is perhaps the most famous religious relic of all time, some background is in order. The shroud itself is a single piece of linen, 14 feet long by 3% feet wide, that faintly shows the front and back images of a long-haired bearded man, as if the man had been laid on one end of the cloth and the other end brought over him. The shroud is seldom seen. During this century, for example, it has been put on display only three times. Usually it lies hidden in a red silk wrapping, locked in a box within a box, within another box, behind an ornate grillwork, atop a high, black marble altar in a chapel of the cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Turin, Italy. Historically, the Santa Sindone, or Holy Shroud, can be traced back to 1357, when it appeared in France in the possession of a knight, Geoffrey deCharny. No one knows how or where he acquired it, but even at that time it was said to be the burial shroud of Christ. In 1453 it was sold to a duke of the House of Savoy, the family that later came to rule Italy. The Savoy family 20 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS owned the shroud until 1983 when it was willed to the Vatican at the death of the deposed King Umberto II. It wasn’t until 1978 that the whole world got acquainted with the shroud. The occasion was the 400th anniversary of its arrival in Turin, and the celebration was a six-week-long event. At its conclusion a group of 40 scientists was allowed five days of direct testing and experimentation. Bringing with them space-age methods of investigation and eight tons of equipment, they proceeded to administer a barrage of tests most of us can’t even pronounce, including ultraviolet, infrared, microchemical, fluorescent and ion microbe analyses, optical microscopy, electron spectroscopy, microphotography and X-ray radiography. More than 30,000 photos were taken. The details that have come to light from those and other studies are ‘ mind-boggling and bring the theory that it might be Christ’s shroud into the realm of the believable. From the simple process of developing photographs of the shroud, it is known that the image is a negative rather than a positive one. From computer analysis, a spin-off of space technology, it has been discovered that unlike conventional photographs, the depths of various points in the image can be determined. The image on the-shroud is three-dimensional. It is known that what appear to be nail holes depicted in the image pierce the wrists,.not the hands’, as-is universally portrayed in crucifixion replicas. (After learning this, one scientist did studies to prove that a nail piercing the hand would, in reality, be unable to ‘support body weight.) Scientists have learned that the image lies on the topmost fibrils of the threads; it has not penetrated to the back of the fabric, except for the areas corresponding to what are believed to be bloodstains. Every coloured fibril in the linen is an identical shade of yellow. Areas of light and dark are simply areas in which the stained fibrils are farther apart or closer together. Scientists further have determined that the body depicted in the image is in a state of rigor mortis, that coins probably covered the eyes, and that the body was flogged with a type of whip common to the Roman army of the time, one whose straps were tipped with bits of lead or bone; also, that the image reveals no directional brush strokes, and that the head was crowned with a cap — not a “crown” or circlet — of thorns. The list goes on. There is evidence of a piercing wound between the fifth and sixth ribs on the left side of the body and of liquid “pooling” at the small of the back as blood might have done if it were pouring from a chest wound. Ultraviolet photographs reveal what appear to be scratches over most of the body. SCIENCE AND THE SHROUD 21 Textile experts have decided that the fabric and weave are not inconsistent with fabrics used in the time of Jesus. Pathologists have pointed out that anatomical features of the image reveal details not known even 200 years ago. The anatomy is depicted flawlessly, including the number of bones, the bone structure, the rigor mortis and the blood flow from the wounds. Of course there are sceptics .Most notable among them is Walter McCrone, a microscopist and head of the McCrone Research Institute in Chicago, who periodically denounced the shroud as an artist’s forgery based on the fact that iron oxide, which has been used for thousands of years as an artists’ pigment, has been detected on a number of fibres. Much has been learned about the shroud, but three major areas remain a mystery: • Who is the man on the shroud? It is unlikely that his identity will ever be proved scientifically. • How did the image get on the cloth? According to the Rev. George Rosenkranz, a Rochester Redemptorist priest who has been studying the shroud since 1978, the latest scientific theory is: “The image might be the result of the dehydration of cellulose in the linen caused by an instantaneous burst of radiant energy in the form of light or heat.” But that’s just the latest theory. The image on the shroud is “an utter anomaly, a unique phe- nomenon,” says one scientist. “Nothing like it is found in science or art. It defies the logic of any artistic or natural process.” • Exactly how old is the shroud? Of all the questions, this is the one that can be answered. The age of the shroud can, in fact, be scientifically determined by a method called carbon-14 dating*. For years the obstacle to this test was the fact that a substantial portion of the material would have to be destroyed in the process of testing, and the Roman Catholic Church refused permission. * A new method of carbon-14 dating All living organisms constantly take in set proportions of radioactive carbon-14 and non-radioactive carbon-12 from the atmosphere. When an organism dies, it no longer takes in any carbon, and the radioactive carbon-14 begins to diminish or decay, while the carbon-12 stays constant. Knowing that it takes almost 6,000 years for half of any concentration of carbon-14 to decay (called the “half-life”), scientists can determine the age of a once-living thing by determining the amount of carbon-14 left in the organism and comparing it to the amount of carbon-12, which has remained constant since death. Using the conventional method, scientists measure .the material’s carbon-14 radioactive emissions. But because the concentration is so low to begin with, a rather large sample is needed, sometimes as much as a quarter-pound, in order to detect measurable levels of emission. And it becomes even more difficult with extremely .old samples whose carbon-14 content has gone through a number of half-lives. However, with the new method developed by Harry Gove and his associates, the carbon is extracted from the material, and the carbon-14 and carbon-12 atoms are counted directly in a nuclear accelerator. Therefore, a much smaller amount of the material is needed for the test. In both methods the material being tested must be destroyed — burned or superheated in a vacuum — in order to separate out the carbon. Because the Shroud of Turin is made of linen, which once was living flax, it can be dated using carbon-14 methods. 22 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS Enter Harry Gove. In the spring of 1977, at the same time that a group of scientists was organising the Shroud of Turin Research Project and setting in motion plans for carrying out any experiments that might be allowed in the future, Gove was at a conference talking with A. E. Litherland, of the University of Toronto, and K. H, Purser, president of General lonex Corp. of Boston, on the possibility of using a nuclear accelerator to date materials based on their carbon-14 content. In the months to come, the three and their colleagues developed a new method of carbon dating, one that required only 1/1,000 of the amount of material required by the conventional method. “We ran our first test on a piece of barbecued charcoal from the supermarket,” says Gove, “and on our oscilloscope the carbon-14 peak stood out like a sore thumb. We felt an enormous exhilaration and almost started dancing around the lab we were so excited.” Laura Tubbs, assistant professor of chemistry at Rochester Institute of Technology, who was a UR student at that time, remembers a sense of excitement running through the whole lab. “We all realised that Dr. Gove’s technique was a major scientific breakthrough. It opened up so many possibilities for study in all sorts of fields like archaeology, geology, art, history, solar astronomy.” The techniques also opened up the possibility for Gove to see the Shroud of Turin. “I had never heard of the shroud till one day, after our technique had been written up in the New York Times and Time magazine, the general secretary of the British Turin Shroud Society wrote and asked about the feasibility of our testing it. He’s the one who told me that an exhibition and scientific meeting were planned for 1978,” Gove says. His curiosity piqued, Gove went to Turin. “The crowd going into the cathedral was eight abreast, going back several blocks. (More than 3 million people viewed it during the six weeks of display). I stood in line till I got claustrophobic and had to leave. Luckily a Canadian TV crew was nearby . . . and they let me in through a side door. “Inside, the lighting was subdued except for the shroud, which was illuminated. It was suspended above eye level behind bullet-proof glass, and there was a wooden walkway built in front of it for the people to walk past. Organ music was playing. “From where I stood, I could see the people’s faces as they looked up at the shroud. The emotion on their faces was incredible; some crossed themselves, SCIENCE AND THE SHROUD 23 some of them had tears in their eyes. Later, around midnight, I went back. I’m not a religious person, but I was very moved seeing it. It’s a beautiful art object, besides having all the religious possibilities associated with it.” At the post-exhibit meeting of scientists, Gove, who holds his doctorate in nuclear physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, submitted a proposal to date the shroud. But at that time church authorities were “a little twitchy,” Gove says, about the use of such a new technique, and they wanted to wait before making a decision. The next year Gove presented the proposal to the cardinal in charge in Turin. But in the eight years since, no threads of the shroud have been released to Gove. Headway has been made, though. A committee of the Shroud of Turin Research Project identified six institutions worldwide that would be interested in dating the shroud and that could do it using minute specimens of cloth. UR’s Nuclear Structure Lab, which is principally funded by the National Science Foundation, was on the list. In 1983 all six labs participated in a test administered by the British Museum in which they were asked to date two specimens of cloth whose ages were known by the museum. Gove says all six accurately dated them (one was 5,000 years old, the other, 400). In 1985, at a carbon-dating conference in Trondheim, Norway, Gove suggested that since all six labs had proven capability, all six should be involved in dating the shroud if the opportunity arose. A piece of the shroud just 4 inches by a half-inch would provide enough material for all six labs. So now they wait. In the past Gove has met with silence in his attempts to communicate with ecclesiastical authorities in Turin. “The gulf between religion and science can be incredible,” he says. “I don’t get to talk with cardinals. Or rather, they don’t talk to me. “I think there are certain middle-echelon hierarchy in Turin who don’t want the test to be done. Their lives have literally been associated with the shroud for years. If the shroud were found to be only 600 years old, it would be like a child dying in their arms. . . . Other clergy feel there are some things better left unanswered. Their position is that whether the shroud is 2,000 years old has no bearing on their belief in Jesus.” Still, Gove is optimistic. He says the STURP organisation wants it tested, and King Umberto, the former owner, was interested in the test. “We’ve had contact with the Pontifical Academy of Science in Rome, and professor Carlos Chagas (its president) is convinced that it should be done. I think it will be, and I think it will happen within a year.” 24 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS The Rev. Adam Otterbein of Esopus, Ulster County, a priest who is president of the national Holy Shroud Guild, agrees. “The scientist’s optimism is justified,” he says. “There is a good chance that permission will be given within a year.” So Gove looks forward to the day when he will become a part of history. He admits that the shroud has already brought more publicity to the UR lab than anything he and his colleagues have done in the 20 years since he arrived from Atomic Energy of Canada to establish and direct it. “It’s provided a wonderful opportunity, too,” adds Tubbs, “to open up communication between scientists and people who know very little about science. It gives us a shared interest.” Gove confesses to only one hesitancy over the testing. He has a horrible vision of himself converting the fabric to carbon and then, as he goes to put it in the accelerator, knocking it out of his hand. Aside from that, he relishes the “nifty scientific adventure.” And, although he claims to have no prejudice regarding the outcome of a carbon-14 test on the shroud, he admits that “emotionally, it would be neat if it turned out to be 2,000 years old. I’d probably get to go to Rome and be greeted by the Pope. That would absolutely make my life!” Unspotted We love the dimpled innocence and purity of a sweet child. But there is something nobler—the face of a man or woman who has fought and suffered in the great battle against corruption that is in the world through lust. To keep oneself unspotted from the evil of the world, though perpetually accosted and surrounded by it, is a greater thing than to live in a glass-house, where the blight and dust cannot enter. What a training for character is this daily warfare! (F. B. Meyer.)