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A Roman papyrus carbonized in pyroclastic flow from the Mt. Vesuvius eruption.

This scene did not make it into the final Roman Ice manuscript. Lupita and Barry are regularly appearing characters in the novels. In this scene, Darwin brought a papyrus buried in the pyroclastic surge that wiped out Herculaneum and Pompeii in the year 79. I knew of the work to unravel the scrolls digitally, but with the Roman Ice manuscript expanding, this scene was not critical to the plot.


The Cipher

After a detour to the break room for coffee, they arrived at Barry’s office. Darwin hung his coat on the suitcase handle and shivered as his body adjusted to the warm office.

Barry walked to the safe and punched in the code.

“How did you finally do it?” asked Darwin.

“The scanning technology wasn’t the hardest part,” said Barry. “Part of my conditions for accepting the job was getting the latest scanner. The university was keen to lead, but the cost was staggering. We finally landed a joint sponsorship between Google and GE. That’s why I had to hush this translation.”

There was a knock on the door.

“Ah, that should be Lupita,” said Barry. “Come in.”

A tall woman pushed open the door and stepped around Darwin’s case and Barry’s book piles.

“Darwin, meet Lupita,” said Barry.

“Pleased to meet you. I’m Darwin Lacroix.”

“Lupita Kimani,” she said. “You have warm hands.”

Darwin blushed.

“No, no. It’s okay. It’s so cold here in England. It is nice to feel warmth,” she smiled broadly.

“Let’s sit down,” said Barry, clearing off a small conference table where Lupita set down a large folder and took out a photograph of a curled and blackened papyrus. “We’ve made great strides at reading the old scrolls from Herculaneum,” said Barry. “Many are copies of known works, but about a third are new. We’re on the verge of announcing a couple of discoveries. Lupita, here is the genius behind it.”

“You are too kind, Doctor Hodgson,” said Lupita.

“Not at all. Tell Darwin how you did it.”

She turned the photo toward Darwin. “Our biggest challenge has always been differentiating between the carbon of the papyrus and the carbon in the ink. Because of the intense heat, both were converted into charcoal. The older machines could not see a difference. This new scanner uses carbon nanotube technology from semiconductor manufacturing. It can ‘see’ down to one nanometer,” said Lupita.

Darwin’s eyebrows furrowed.

“A human hair is about 80,000 nanometers wide,” she explained.

“We’re the first in the world to use this scanner,” said Barry, smiling.

“How does it work?” asked Darwin.

“When the volcanic heat scorched the papyri, the plant material shrank. Like when paper burns, some carbon is converted to gas and energy. The ink added extra carbon to the papyrus, making the carbon deposit thicker.”

“And the scanner can detect the differences,” said Darwin.

“Precisely,” said Lupita. “But the scan data was tightly compressed because of the scrolling. This is where the software takes over.” She rolled a piece of paper and held it in her fist. She turned it so Darwin could see the coiled end. “The Romans read left to right and top to bottom. So, the letters begin at the top and spiral down the page one line at a time. The scan showed the discrete separations between each coil. The software program reads the letters in each coil and lays them out in a long line,” she said, circling her finger around the paper.

“When she says the program, she means her program,” said Barry. “No one else could visualize the data the way Lupita did.”

“This is amazing,” said Darwin. “But why didn’t anyone else figure this out?”

“They tried, but the new carbon nanotube scanner helped distinguish the boundaries between papyrus carbon and papyrus plus ink carbon. The software was pretty good, too. See for yourself.”

She removed a page from her folder and handed it to him.


Dave Bartell - Author Home Page

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