Writer Turned Scientist | Science | Smithsonian

Writer Turned Scientist

In this interview, Mary K. Miller, author of "Reading Between the Lines," describes becoming a shift supervisor in the lab

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You didn't just write about the palimpsest, you actually got to work on the project. How did that come about?

I was working on a Web cast documentary about the project. I spent two days hanging out and trying to figure out how to do it, and then I was there all day for the Web cast. After that, I was done, but the researchers said, "Well you can come back if you want! There's a job you can do." Some of them needed a break, because they were working 12-hour shifts for two weeks straight (they were rushed because they didn't want the palimpsest to be out of the Walters Museum's controlled environment for very long). They figured I understood enough about what was going on to help out. So I jumped on it, and I got to be the shift supervisor. Somebody needs to be there in case the beam goes down or something happens, so this was an opportunity for one of the other team members to take a break. In the picture I'm wearing a silly hat—it's the "hat of power," which designated the shift supervisor. I'm sitting at a computer and behind me is the computer monitor with the palimpsest on the screen.

Was that exciting?

Yeah! I was just completely fascinated. I was surrounded by this huge, loud machinery, and it was very different than my scientific background, which is in marine biology. So using that kind of equipment and being around that much raw power is something different. I would have kept doing it if I hadn't had a regular job.

Does participating in science help you explain it to readers?

Laypeople know that scientists make important discoveries and that they help society, but they may not know how the scientists do it. Being involved in the process and actually hanging out in labs and watching what scientists do helps me give my readers a sense of the scientific process, and often that means going out in the field, looking over the shoulders of scientists and having them show me what they do.

Why did you want to share this story?

What's most exciting to me is when real scientific discovery unfolds before my eyes, and that's what this story was. I was there in the lab, sharing the excitement of this team of people who are just completely devoted to this, and as I watched, new information about Archimedes was revealed—slowly, but in real time.

Is the synchrotron X-ray technique brand new?

Scientists have used X-ray fluorescence to read manuscripts, but synchrotron radiation is a new way to do it. The palimpsest would have been totally unrecoverable—without this new technique there would have been no way to do this. That juxtaposition of the most modern tools of physics and a very ancient document about physics felt kind of like time travel.

Many people don't know anything about Archimedes besides that he supposedly said "Eureka." Were you familiar with him beforehand?

Actually, geometry was one of my favorite subjects in high school—I was pretty nerdy that way—so I knew about his logic and proofs and basic mathematics. But what I didn't know was how important and relevant he was to combining the abstract proofs and theorems that mathematicians do with real world applications. From the palimpsest, I've learned a lot about how relevant he is to scientists today.

What did you think when you learned how the palimpsest was created?

It sounded awful. Scraping off an original book and writing over the top of it seemed just awful to me. But then I thought, that was a time when it was really important to these monks that they preserve their prayers. And if they hadn't done it, this book would surely have been completely lost.

Do you see it as a conflict between science and religion?

You could use the palimpsest as a very simple metaphor about how science and religion can coexist—as here they coexist in this document—or how they're in a battle with each other, one against the other. But neither idea seems right, so I didn't want to use that metaphor.

What does the palimpsest say about the transmission of knowledge through time?

I think sometimes knowledge is undervalued—often just knowing things about the world doesn't seem to be important to people. It also made me think a lot about science and democracy, because Greece was the birthplace of both. They work best when they work together. It's about not being afraid of the answer to a question and not controlling it, letting knowledge be known. We've gone though times where knowledge has been suppressed and then come back out again, and the Middle Ages were a period in which knowledge was controlled. Now knowledge is more available.

About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Boston-based freelance journalist writing about government, education and ideas. Her writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Slate, Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe.

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