Ancient Mysteries

The 53-square-foot rectangle of linen known as the Shroud of Turin is one of the most sacred religious icons on Earth, venerated by millions of Christians as the actual burial garment of Jesus Christ. It is also among the most fiercely debated subjects in contemporary science, an extraordinary mystery that has defied every effort at solution. Over the 117 years since a photographic negative of the linen unexpectedly revealed the image of a tortured body, ranks of physicists and chemists have weighed in on the fabric’s age and the image’s composition. Forensic pathologists, microbiologists, and botanists have analyzed its bloodstains, along with specks of dirt and pollen on its surface. Statisticians have combed through mountains of data.

The sum result is a standoff, with researchers unable to dismiss the shroud entirely as a forgery, or prove that it is authentic. Paolo Di Lazzaro and his colleagues at Italy’s National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development (ENEA) conducted five years of experiments, using state-of-the-art excimer lasers to train short bursts of ultraviolet light on raw linen, in an effort to simulate the image’s coloration. The ENEA team, which published its findings in 2011, came tantalizingly close to approximating the image’s distinctive hue on a few square centimeters of fabric. But they were unable to match all the physical and chemical characteristics of the shroud image. Nor could they reproduce a whole human figure.

The ultraviolet light necessary to do so “exceeds the maximum power released by all ultraviolet light sources available today,” says Di Lazzaro. It would require “pulses having durations shorter than one forty-billionth of a second, and intensities on the order of several billion watts.” If the most advanced technologies available in the 21st century could not produce a facsimile of the shroud image, he reasons, how could it have been executed by a medieval forger? For believers, the radiation thesis suggests that a “divine light” in the tomb might have seared the crucified form of Jesus Christ onto the shroud.


Kemo D. 7

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