Tag Archives: University College London (UCL)

Archaeomagnetism, anomalies in space, and 3,000-year-old Babylonian bricks

While i don’t usually cover the topic of magnetic fields, this fascinating research required a combination of science and the humanities, a topic of some interest to me. First, there’s the news and then excerpts from Rae Hodge’s December 25, 2023 commentary “How 3,000-year-old Babylonian tablets help scientists unravel one of the weirdest mysteries in space” for Salon.

A December 19, 2023 University College London (UCL; also on EurekAlert but published December 18, 2023) explains how Babylonian artefacts led to a discovery about earth’s magnetic fields,

Ancient bricks inscribed with the names of Mesopotamian kings have yielded important insights into a mysterious anomaly in Earth’s magnetic field 3,000 years ago, according to a new study involving UCL researchers.

The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), describes how changes in the Earth’s magnetic field imprinted on iron oxide grains within ancient clay bricks, and how scientists were able to reconstruct these changes from the names of the kings inscribed on the bricks.

The team hopes that using this “archaeomagnetism,” which looks for signatures of the Earth’s magnetic field in archaeological items, will improve the history of Earth’s magnetic field, and can help better date artefacts that they previously couldn’t.

Co-author Professor Mark Altaweel (UCL Institute of Archaeology) said: “We often depend on dating methods such as radiocarbon dates to get a sense of chronology in ancient Mesopotamia. However, some of the most common cultural remains, such as bricks and ceramics, cannot typically be easily dated because they don’t contain organic material. This work now helps create an important dating baseline that allows others to benefit from absolute dating using archaeomagnetism.”

The Earth’s magnetic field weakens and strengthens over time, changes which imprint a distinct signature on hot minerals that are sensitive to the magnetic field. The team analysed the latent magnetic signature in grains of iron oxide minerals embedded in 32 clay bricks originating from archaeological sites throughout Mesopotamia, which now overlaps with modern day Iraq. The strength of the planet’s magnetic field was imprinted upon the minerals when they were first fired by the brickmakers thousands of years ago.

At the time they were made, each brick was inscribed with the name of the reigning king which archaeologists have dated to a range of likely timespans. Together, the imprinted name and the measured magnetic strength of the iron oxide grains offered a historical map of the changes to the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field.

The researchers were able to confirm the existence of the “Levantine Iron Age geomagnetic Anomaly,” a period when Earth’s magnetic field was unusually strong around modern Iraq between about 1050 to 550 BCE for unclear reasons. Evidence of the anomaly has been detected as far away as China, Bulgaria and the Azores, but data from within the southern part of the Middle East itself had been sparse.

Lead author Professor Matthew Howland of Wichita State University said: “By comparing ancient artefacts to what we know about ancient conditions of the magnetic field, we can estimate the dates of any artifacts that were heated up in ancient times.”

To measure the iron oxide grains, the team carefully chipped tiny fragments from broken faces of the bricks and used a magnetometer to precisely measure the fragments.

By mapping out the changes in Earth’s magnetic field over time, this data also offers archaeologists a new tool to help date some ancient artefacts. The magnetic strength of iron oxide grains embedded within fired items can be measured and then matched up to the known strengths of Earth’s historic magnetic field. The reigns of kings lasted from years to decades, which offers better resolution than radiocarbon dating which only pinpoints an artefact’s date to within a few hundred years.

An additional benefit of the archaeomagnetic dating of the artefacts is it can help historians more precisely pinpoint the reigns of some of the ancient kings that have been somewhat ambiguous. Though the length and order of their reigns is well known, there has been disagreement within the archaeological community about the precise years they took the throne resulting from incomplete historical records. The researchers found that their technique lined up with an understanding of the kings’ reigns known to archaeologists as the “Low Chronology”.

The team also found that in five of their samples, taken during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II from 604 to 562 BCE, the Earth’s magnetic field seemed to change dramatically over a relatively short period of time, adding evidence to the hypothesis that rapid spikes in intensity are possible.

Co-author Professor Lisa Tauxe of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (US) said: “The geomagnetic field is one of the most enigmatic phenomena in earth sciences. The well-dated archaeological remains of the rich Mesopotamian cultures, especially bricks inscribed with names of specific kings, provide an unprecedented opportunity to study changes in the field strength in high time resolution, tracking changes that occurred over several decades or even less.”

The research was carried out with funding from the U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundatio

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Exploring geomagnetic variations in ancient Mesopotamia: Archaeomagnetic study of inscribed bricks from the 3rd–1st millennia BCE by Matthew D. Howland, Lisa Tauxe, Shai Gordin, and Erez Ben-Yosef. PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) December 18, 2023 120 (52) e2313361120 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2313361120

This paper is behind a paywall.

The Humanities and their importance to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics)

Rae Hodge’s December 25, 2023 commentary explains why magnetic fields might be of interest to a member of the general public (that’s me) and more about the interdisciplinarity, which drove the project, Note 1: This is a US-centric view but the situation in Canada (and I suspect elsewhere) is similar. Note 2: Links have been removed,

Among the most enigmatic mysteries of modern science are the strange anomalies which appear from time to time in the earth’s geomagnetic field. It can seem like the laws of physics behave differently in some places, with unnerving and bizarre results — spacecraft become glitchy, the Hubble Space Telescope can’t capture observations and satellite communications go on the fritz. Some astronauts orbiting past the anomalies report blinding flashes of light and sudden silence. They call one of these massive, growing anomalies the Bermuda Triangle of space — and even NASA [US National Aeronautics and Space Administration] is now tracking it. 

With all the precisely tuned prowess of modern tech turning its eye toward these geomagnetic oddities, you might not expect that some key scientific insights about them could be locked inside a batch of 3,000-year-old Babylonian cuneiform tablets. But that’s exactly what a recently published study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests. 

This newly discovered connection between ancient Mesopotamian writing and modern physics is more than an amusing academic fluke. It highlights just how much is at stake for 21st-century scientific progress when budget-slashing lawmakers, university administrators and private industry investors shovel funding into STEM field development while neglecting — and in some case, actively destroying — the humanities.

… Despite advances in the past five years or so, archaeomagnetism is still methodologically complex and often tedious work, often cautious data sifting to arrive at accurate interpretations. The more accurate of which come from analyzing layers upon layers of strata. 

But when combined with the expertise of the humanities — from historians and linguists, to religious scholars and anthropologists? Archaeomagnetism opens up new worlds of study across all disciplines. 

In fact, the team’s results show that the strength of the magnetic field in Mesopotamia was more than one and a half times stronger than it is in the area today, with a massive spike happening sometimes between 604 B.C. and 562 B.C. By combining the results of archaeomagnetic tests and the transcriptions of ancient languages on the bricks, the team was able to confirm this spike likely occurred during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II.

Hand in hand with the sciences, the LIAA [Levantine Iron Age Anomaly] trail was illuminated by historical accounts of descriptively similar events, recorded from ancient authors as far west as the Iberian peninsula and well into Asia. Archaeomagnetism has now allowed researchers to not only confirm the presence of the LIAA in ancient Mesopotamia from 1050 to 550 B.C. — itself a first for science — but offers cultural historians a new way to verify and apply context to a vast tide of early scientific information.

Hodge further explores the importance of interdisciplinary work, December 25, 2023 commentary, Note: Links have been removed,

The symbiotic interdependence between the humanities and sciences deepens further in the thicket of time when one considers that the original locations of the team’s fragments likely include the earliest known centers of astrology and mathematics in Sumeria, such as Nineveh near modern-day Mosul, Iraq. At the ancient city’s royal library of the Assyrian Empire, a site dating back to around 650 B.C., a trove of thousands of tablets were excavated in the mid-1800s containing precise astronomical data surpassing that found in any previous discovery.

Among those, the “The Plough Star” tablets bear inscriptions dating to 687 B.C. and are the first known instances of humans tracking lunar and planetary orbits through both the solar ecliptic and 17 constellations. The same trove yielded the awe-striking collection known as the Astronomical Diaries, currently held in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, originating from near modern-day Baghdad. The oldest of which dates to 652 B.C. The latest, 61 B.C.

Hermann Hunger and David Pingree, the foremost historians on their excavation, minced no words on their value to to modern science. 

“That someone in the middle of the eighth century BC conceived of such a scientific program and obtained support for it is truly astonishing; that it was designed so well is incredible; and that it was faithfully carried out for 700 years is miraculous,” they wrote.  

In his 2021 book, “A Scheme of Heaven,” data scientist Alexander Boxer cites the two historians and observes that the “enormity of this achievement” lay in the diaries’ preservation of a snapshot of celestial knowledge of the age which — paired with accounts of weather patterns, river water tables, grain prices and even political news — allow us to pinpoint historical events from thousands of years ago, in time-windows as narrow as just a day or two.

“Rivaled only by the extraordinary astronomical records from ancient China, the Babylonian Astronomical Diaries are one of, if not the longest continuous research program ever undertaken,” writes Boxer. 

The cuneiform tablets studied by the UCL team extend this interdisciplinary legacy of the sciences and humanities beautifully by allowing us to read not only the celestially relevant data of geomagnetic history, but by reaffirming the importance of early cultural studies. One fragment, for instance, is dedicated by Nebuchadnezzar II to a temple in Larsa. The site was devoted to carrying out astrological divination traditions, and it’s where we get our earliest clue about the authorship of the Astronomical Diaries. 

Charmingly, that clue appears in the court testimony of a temple official who gets scolded for sounding a false-alarm about an eclipse, embarrassing the temple scholars in front of the whole city.

These Neo-Assyrian and Old Babylonian astrologers gave us more than antics, though. In further records at Nineveh, they would ultimately help researchers at the University of Tsukuba [Japan] — some 2,700 years later — track what were likely massive solar magnetic storms in the area, enabled by geomagnetic disruptions that may be yet linked to the LIAA.

In their dutifully recorded daily observations, one astrologer records a “red cloud” while another tablet-writer observes that “red covers the sky” in Babylon.

“These were probably manifestations of what we call today stable auroral red arcs, consisting of light emitted by electrons in atmospheric oxygen atoms after being excited by intense magnetic fields,” the authors said. “These findings allow us to recreate the history of solar activity a century earlier than previously available records…This research can assist in our ability to predict future solar magnetic storms, which may damage satellites and other spacecraft.”

Hodge ends with an observation, from her December 25, 2023 commentary,

When universities short sell the arts and humanities, we humanities students might lose our poetry, but we can write more. The science folk, on the other hand, might cost themselves another 75 years of research and $70 billion in grants trying to re-invent the Babylonian wheel because the destruction of its historical blueprint was “an arts problem.”

If you have time, do read Hodge’s December 25, 2023 commentary.

Brain-inspired (neuromrophic) computing with twisted magnets and a patent for manufacturing permanent magnets without rare earths

I have two news bits both of them concerned with magnets.

Patent for magnets that can be made without rare earths

I’m starting with the patent news first since this is (as the company notes in its news release) a “Landmark Patent Issued for Technology Critically Needed to Combat Chinese Monopoly.”

For those who don’t know, China supplies most of the rare earths used in computers, smart phones, and other devices. On general principles, having a single supplier dominate production of and access to a necessary material for devices that most of us rely on can raise tensions. Plus, you can’t mine for resources forever.

This December 19, 2023 Nanocrystal Technology LP news release heralds an exciting development (for the impatient, further down the page I have highlighted the salient sections),

Nanotechnology Discovery by 2023 Nobel Prize Winner Became Launch Pad to Create Permanent Magnets without Rare Earths from China

NEW YORK, NY, UNITED STATES, December 19, 2023 /EINPresswire.com/ — Integrated Nano-Magnetics Corp, a wholly owned subsidiary of Nanocrystal Technology LP, was awarded a patent for technology built upon a fundamental nanoscience discovery made by Aleksey Yekimov, its former Chief Scientific Officer.

This patent will enable the creation of strong permanent magnets which are critically needed for both industrial and military applications but cannot be manufactured without certain “rare earth” elements available mostly from China.

At a glittering awards ceremony held in Stockholm on December10, 2023, three scientists, Aleksey Yekimov, Louis Brus (Professor at Columbia University) and Moungi Bawendi (Professor at MIT) were honored with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of the “quantum dot” which is now fueling practical applications in tuning the colors of LEDs, increasing the resolution of TV screens, and improving MRI imaging.

As stated by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, “Quantum dots are … bringing the greatest benefits to humankind. Researchers believe that in the future they could contribute to flexible electronics, tiny sensors, thinner solar cells, and encrypted quantum communications – so we have just started exploring the potential of these tiny particles.”

Aleksey Yekimov worked for over 19 years until his retirement as Chief Scientific Officer of Nanocrystals Technology LP, an R & D company in New York founded by two Indian-American entrepreneurs, Rameshwar Bhargava and Rajan Pillai.

Yekimov, who was born in Russia, had already received the highest scientific honors for his work before he immigrated to USA in 1999. Yekimov was greatly intrigued by Nanocrystal Technology’s research project and chose to join the company as its Chief Scientific Officer.

During its early years, the company worked on efficient light generation by doping host nanoparticles about the same size as a quantum dot with an additional impurity atom. Bhargava came up with the novel idea of incorporating a single impurity atom, a dopant, into a quantum dot sized host, and thus achieve an extraordinary change in the host material’s properties such as inducing strong permanent magnetism in weak, readily available paramagnetic materials. To get a sense of the scale at which nanotechnology works, and as vividly illustrated by the Nobel Foundation, the difference in size between a quantum dot and a soccer ball is about the same as the difference between a soccer ball and planet Earth.

Currently, strong permanent magnets are manufactured from “rare earths” available mostly in China which has established a near monopoly on the supply of rare-earth based strong permanent magnets. Permanent magnets are a fundamental building block for electro-mechanical devices such as motors found in all automobiles including electric vehicles, trucks and tractors, military tanks, wind turbines, aircraft engines, missiles, etc. They are also required for the efficient functioning of audio equipment such as speakers and cell phones as well as certain magnetic storage media.

The existing market for permanent magnets is $28 billion and is projected to reach $50 billion by 2030 in view of the huge increase in usage of electric vehicles. China’s overwhelming dominance in this field has become a matter of great concern to governments of all Western and other industrialized nations. As the Wall St. Journal put it, China’s now has a “stranglehold” on the economies and security of other countries.

The possibility of making permanent magnets without the use of any rare earths mined in China has intrigued leading physicists and chemists for nearly 30 years. On December 19, 2023, a U.S. patent with the title ‘’Strong Non Rare Earth Permanent Magnets from Double Doped Magnetic Nanoparticles” was granted to Integrated Nano-Magnetics Corp. [emphasis mine] Referring to this major accomplishment Bhargava said, “The pioneering work done by Yekimov, Brus and Bawendi has provided the foundation for us to make other discoveries in nanotechnology which will be of great benefit to the world.”

I was not able to find any company websites. The best I could find is a Nanocrystals Technology LinkedIn webpage and some limited corporate data for Integrated Nano-Magnetics on opencorporates.com.

Twisted magnets and brain-inspired computing

This research offers a pathway to neuromorphic (brainlike) computing with chiral (or twisted) magnets, which, as best as I understand it, do not require rare earths. From a November13, 2023 news item on ScienceDaily,

A form of brain-inspired computing that exploits the intrinsic physical properties of a material to dramatically reduce energy use is now a step closer to reality, thanks to a new study led by UCL [University College London] and Imperial College London [ICL] researchers.

In the new study, published in the journal Nature Materials, an international team of researchers used chiral (twisted) magnets as their computational medium and found that, by applying an external magnetic field and changing temperature, the physical properties of these materials could be adapted to suit different machine-learning tasks.

A November 9, 2023 UCL press release (also on EurekAlert but published November 13, 2023), which originated the news item, fill s in a few more details about the research,

Dr Oscar Lee (London Centre for Nanotechnology at UCL and UCL Department of Electronic & Electrical Engineering), the lead author of the paper, said: “This work brings us a step closer to realising the full potential of physical reservoirs to create computers that not only require significantly less energy, but also adapt their computational properties to perform optimally across various tasks, just like our brains.

“The next step is to identify materials and device architectures that are commercially viable and scalable.”

Traditional computing consumes large amounts of electricity. This is partly because it has separate units for data storage and processing, meaning information has to be shuffled constantly between the two, wasting energy and producing heat. This is particularly a problem for machine learning, which requires vast datasets for processing. Training one large AI model can generate hundreds of tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Physical reservoir computing is one of several neuromorphic (or brain inspired) approaches that aims to remove the need for distinct memory and processing units, facilitating more efficient ways to process data. In addition to being a more sustainable alternative to conventional computing, physical reservoir computing could be integrated into existing circuitry to provide additional capabilities that are also energy efficient.

In the study, involving researchers in Japan and Germany, the team used a vector network analyser to determine the energy absorption of chiral magnets at different magnetic field strengths and temperatures ranging from -269 °C to room temperature.

They found that different magnetic phases of chiral magnets excelled at different types of computing task. The skyrmion phase, where magnetised particles are swirling in a vortex-like pattern, had a potent memory capacity apt for forecasting tasks. The conical phase, meanwhile, had little memory, but its non-linearity was ideal for transformation tasks and classification – for instance, identifying if an animal is a cat or dog.

Co-author Dr Jack Gartside, of Imperial College London, said: “Our collaborators at UCL in the group of Professor Hidekazu Kurebayashi recently identified a promising set of materials for powering unconventional computing. These materials are special as they can support an especially rich and varied range of magnetic textures. Working with the lead author Dr Oscar Lee, the Imperial College London group [led by Dr Gartside, Kilian Stenning and Professor Will Branford] designed a neuromorphic computing architecture to leverage the complex material properties to match the demands of a diverse set of challenging tasks. This gave great results, and showed how reconfiguring physical phases can directly tailor neuromorphic computing performance.”

The work also involved researchers at the University of Tokyo and Technische Universität München and was supported by the Leverhulme Trust, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), Imperial College London President’s Excellence Fund for Frontier Research, Royal Academy of Engineering, the Japan Science and Technology Agency, Katsu Research Encouragement Award, Asahi Glass Foundation, and the DFG (German Research Foundation).

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Task-adaptive physical reservoir computing by Oscar Lee, Tianyi Wei, Kilian D. Stenning, Jack C. Gartside, Dan Prestwood, Shinichiro Seki, Aisha Aqeel, Kosuke Karube, Naoya Kanazawa, Yasujiro Taguchi, Christian Back, Yoshinori Tokura, Will R. Branford & Hidekazu Kurebayashi. Nature Materials volume 23, pages 79–87 (2024) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41563-023-01698-8 Published online: 13 November 2023 Issue Date: January 2024

This paper is open access.

Seaweed battery

A supercapacitor is not a battery but it does have some similarities. (For the ‘seaweed curious’, there’s this somewhat related May 17, 2017 posting titled “Seaweed supercapacitors.” It doesn’t seem to be quite as popular as butterfly wings or a crustacean’s shell but seaweed does seem to have a following in the materials community. From an October 5, 2022 news item on Nanowerk,

Bristol-led team uses nanomaterials made from seaweed to create a strong battery separator, paving the way for greener and more efficient energy storage.

Sodium-metal batteries (SMBs) are one of the most promising high-energy and low-cost energy storage systems for the next-generation of large-scale applications. However, one of the major impediments to the development of SMBs is uncontrolled dendrite growth, which penetrate the battery’s separator and result in short-circuiting.

Building on previous work at the University of Bristol and in collaboration with Imperial College and University College London, the team has succeeded in making a separator from cellulose nanomaterials derived from brown seaweed.

An October 5, 2022 University of Bristol press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, gives some technical details, Note: A link has been removed,

The research, published in Advanced Materials, describes how fibres containing these seaweed-derived nanomaterials not only stop crystals from the sodium electrodes penetrating the separator, they also improve the performance of the batteries.

“The aim of a separator is to separate the functioning parts of a battery (the plus and the minus ends) and allow free transport of the charge. We have shown that seaweed-based materials can make the separator very strong and prevent it being punctured by metal structures made from sodium. It also allows for greater storage capacity and efficiency, increasing the lifetime of the batteries – something which is key to powering devices such as mobile phones for much longer,” said Jing Wang, first author and PhD student in the Bristol Composites Institute (BCI).

Dr Amaka Onyianta, also from the BCI, who created the cellulose nanomaterials and co-authored the research, said: “I was delighted to see that these nanomaterials are able to strengthen the separator materials and enhance our capability to move towards sodium-based batteries. This means we wouldn’t have to rely on scarce materials such as lithium, which is often mined unethically and uses a great deal of natural resources, such as water, to extract it.”

“This work really demonstrates that greener forms of energy storage are possible, without being destructive to the environment in their production,” said Professor Steve Eichhorn who led the research at the Bristol Composites Institute.

The next challenge is to upscale production of these materials and to supplant current lithium-based technology.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Stable Sodium Metal Batteries in Carbonate Electrolytes Achieved by Bifunctional, Sustainable Separators with Tailored Alignment by Jing Wang, Zhen Xu, Qicheng Zhang, Xin Song, Xuekun Lu, Zhenyu Zhang, Amaka J. Onyianta, Mengnan Wang, Maria-Magdalena Titirici, Stephen J. Eichhorn. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adma.202206367 First published online: 20 September 2022

This paper is open access.

‘Ghost’ nannofossils and resilience

Here are the ‘ghosts’,

Microscopic plankton cell-wall coverings preserved as “ghost” fossil impressions, pressed into the surface of ancient organic matter (183 million years old). The images show the impressions of a collapsed cell-wall covering (a coccosphere) on the surface of a fragment of ancient organic matter (left) with the individual plates (coccoliths) enlarged to show the exquisite preservation of sub-micron-scale structures (right). The blue image is inverted to give a virtual fossil cast, i.e., to show the original three-dimensional form. The original plates have been removed from the sediment by dissolution, leaving behind only the ghost imprints. S.M. Slater, P. Bown et al / Science journal

A May 19, 2022 news item on phys.org makes the announcement (Note: A link has been removed),

An international team of scientists from UCL (University College London), the Swedish Museum of Natural History, Natural History Museum (London) and the University of Florence have found a remarkable type of fossilization that has remained almost entirely overlooked until now.

The fossils are microscopic imprints, or “ghosts”, of single-celled plankton, called coccolithophores, that lived in the seas millions of years ago, and their discovery is changing our understanding of how plankton in the oceans are affected by climate change.

Coccolithophores are important in today’s oceans, providing much of the oxygen we breathe, supporting marine food webs, and locking carbon away in seafloor sediments. They are a type of microscopic plankton that surround their cells with hard calcareous plates, called coccoliths, and these are what normally fossilize in rocks.

Declines in the abundance of these fossils have been documented from multiple past global warming events, suggesting that these plankton were severely affected by climate change and ocean acidification. However, a study published today in the journal Science presents new global records of abundant ghost fossils from three Jurassic and Cretaceous warming events (94, 120 and 183 million years ago), suggesting that coccolithophores were more resilient to past climate change than was previously thought.


A May 20, 2022 UCL press release (also on EurekAlert but published May 19, 2022), which originated the news item, provides more detail and quotes from some very excited academics,

“The discovery of these beautiful ghost fossils was completely unexpected”, says Dr. Sam Slater from the Swedish Museum of Natural History. “We initially found them preserved on the surfaces of fossilized pollen, and it quickly became apparent that they were abundant during intervals where normal coccolithophore fossils were rare or absent – this was a total surprise!”

Despite their microscopic size, coccolithophores can be hugely abundant in the present ocean, being visible from space as cloud-like blooms. After death, their calcareous exoskeletons sink to the seafloor, accumulating in vast numbers, forming rocks such as chalk.

“The preservation of these ghost nannofossils is truly remarkable,” says Professor Paul Bown (UCL). “The ghost fossils are extremely small ‒ their length is approximately five thousandths of a millimetre, 15 times narrower than the width of a human hair! ‒ but the detail of the original plates is still perfectly visible, pressed into the surfaces of ancient organic matter, even though the plates themselves have dissolved away”.

The ghost fossils formed while the sediments at the seafloor were being buried and turned into rock. As more mud was gradually deposited on top, the resulting pressure squashed the coccolith plates and other organic remains together, and the hard coccoliths were pressed into the surfaces of pollen, spores and other soft organic matter. Later, acidic waters within spaces in the rock dissolved away the coccoliths, leaving behind just their impressions – the ghosts.

“Normally, palaeontologists only search for the fossil coccoliths themselves, and if they don’t find any then they often assume that these ancient plankton communities collapsed,” explains Professor Vivi Vajda (Swedish Museum of Natural History). “These ghost fossils show us that sometimes the fossil record plays tricks on us and there are other ways that these calcareous nannoplankton may be preserved, which need to be taken into account when trying to understand responses to past climate change”.

Professor Silvia Danise (University of Florence) says: “Ghost nannofossils are likely common in the fossil record, but they have been overlooked due to their tiny size and cryptic mode of preservation. We think that this peculiar type of fossilization will be useful in the future, particularly when studying geological intervals where the original coccoliths are missing from the fossil record”.

The study focused on the Toarcian Oceanic Anoxic Event (T-OAE), an interval of rapid global warming in the Early Jurassic (183 million years ago), caused by an increase in CO2-levels in the atmosphere from massive volcanism in the Southern Hemisphere. The researchers found ghost nannofossils associated with the T-OAE from the UK, Germany, Japan and New Zealand, but also from two similar global warming events in the Cretaceous: Oceanic Anoxic Event 1a (120 million years ago) from Sweden, and Oceanic Anoxic Event 2 (94 million years ago) from Italy.

“The ghost fossils show that nannoplankton were abundant, diverse and thriving during past warming events in the Jurassic and Cretaceous, where previous records have assumed that plankton collapsed due to ocean acidification,” explains Professor Richard Twitchett (Natural History Museum, London). “These fossils are rewriting our understanding of how the calcareous nannoplankton respond to warming events.”

Finally, Dr. Sam Slater explains: “Our study shows that algal plankton were abundant during these past warming events and contributed to the expansion of marine dead zones, where seafloor oxygen-levels were too low for most species to survive. These conditions, with plankton blooms and dead zones, may become more widespread across our globally warming oceans.”

For the curious, there is also a May 19, 2022 American Association for the Advanced of Science (AAAS) news release about this discovery in Science, the journal they publish.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Global record of “ghost” nannofossils reveals plankton resilience to high CO2 and warming by Sam M. Slater, Paul Bown, Richard J. Twitchett, Silvia Danise, and Vivi Vajda. Science 19 May 2022 Vol 376, Issue 6595 pp. 853-856 DOI: 10.1126/science.abm7330

This paper is behind a paywall.

Antikythera: a new Berggruen Institute program and a 2,000 year old computer

Starting with the new Antikythera program at the Berggruen Institute before moving onto the Antikythera itself, one of my favourite scientific mysteries.

Antikythera program at the Berggruen Institute

An October 5, 2022 Berggruen Institute news release (also received via email) announces a program exploring the impact of planetary-scale computation and invites applications for the program’s first ‘studio’,

Antikythera is convening over 75 philosophers, technologists, designers, and scientists in seminars, design research studios, and global salons to create new models that shift computation toward more viable long-term futures: https://antikythera.xyz/

Applications are now open for researchers to join Antikythera’s fully-funded five month Studio in 2023, launching at the Berggruen Institute in Los Angeles: https://antikythera.xyz/apply/

Today [October 5, 2022] the Berggruen Institute announced that it will incubate Antikythera, an initiative focused on understanding and shaping the impact of computation on philosophy, global society, and planetary systems. Antikythera will engage a wide range of thinkers at the intersections of software, speculative thought, governance, and design to explore computation’s ultimate pitfalls and potentials. Research will range from the significance of machine intelligence and the geopolitics of AI to new economic models and the long-term project of composing a healthy planetary society.

“Against a background of rising geopolitical tensions and an accelerating climate crisis, technology has outpaced our theory. As such, we are less interested in applying philosophy to the topic of computation than generating new ideas from a direct encounter with it.” said Benjamin Bratton, Professor at the University of California, San Diego, and director of the new program. “The purpose of Antikythera is to reorient the question “what is computation for?” and to model what it may become. That is a project that is not only technological but also philosophical, political, and ecological.”

Antikythera will begin this exploration with its Studio program, applications for which are now open at antikythera.xyz/apply/. The Studio program will take place over five months in spring 2023 and bring together researchers from across the world to work in multidisciplinary teams. These teams will work on speculative design proposals, and join 75+ Affiliate Researchers for workshops, talks, and design sprints that inform thinking and propositions around Antikythera’s core research topics. Affiliate Researchers will include philosophers, technologists, designers, scientists, and other thinkers and practitioners. Applications for the program are due November 11, 2022.

Program project outcomes will include new combinations of theory, cinema, software, and policy. The five initial research themes animating this work are:

Synthetic Intelligence: the longer-term implications of machine intelligence, particularly as seen through the lens of artificial language

Hemispherical Stacks: the multipolar geopolitics of planetary computation

Recursive Simulations: the emergence of simulation as an epistemological technology, from scientific simulation to VR/AR

Synthetic Catallaxy: the ongoing organization of computational economics, pricing, and planning

Planetary Sapience: the evolutionary emergence of natural/artificial intelligence, and its role in composing a viable planetary condition

The program is named after the Antikythera Mechanism, the world’s first known computer, used more than 2,000 years ago to predict the movements of constellations and eclipses decades in advance. As an origin point for computation, it combined calculation, orientation and cosmology, dimensions of practice whose synergies may be crucial in setting our planetary future on a better course than it is on today.

Bratton continues, “The evolution of planetary intelligence has also meant centuries of destruction; its future must be radically different. We must ask, what future would make this past worth it? Taking the question seriously demands a different sort of speculative and practical philosophy and a corresponding sort of computation.”

Bratton is a philosopher of technology and Professor at the University of California, San Diego, and author of many books including The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (MIT Press). His most recent book is The Revenge of the Real: Politics for a Post-Pandemic World (Verso Books), exploring the implications for political philosophy of COVID-19. Associate directors are Ben Cerveny, technologist, speculative designer, and director of the Amsterdam-based Foundation for Public Code, and Stephanie Sherman, strategist, writer, and director of the MA Narrative Environments program at Central St. Martins, London. The Studio is directed by architect and creative director Nicolay Boyadjiev.

In addition to the Studio, program activities will include a series of invitation-only planning salons inviting philosophers, designers, technologists, strategists, and others to discuss how to best interpret and intervene in the future of planetary-scale computation, and the historic philosophical and geopolitical force that it represents. These salons began in London in October 2022 and will continue in locations across the world including in Berlin; Amsterdam; Los Angeles; San Francisco; New York; Mexico City; Seoul; and Venice.

The announcement of Antikythera at the Berggruen Institute follows the recent spinoff of the Transformations of the Human school, successfully incubated at the Institute from 2017-2021.

“Computational technology covering the planet represents one of the largest and most urgent philosophical opportunities of our time,” said Nicolas Berggruen, Chairman and Co-Founder of the Berggruen Institute. “It is with great pleasure that we invite Antikythera to join our work at the Institute. Together, we can develop new ways of thinking to support planetary flourishing in the years to come.”

Web: Antikythera.xyz
Social: Antikythera_xyz on Twitter, Instagram, and Linkedin.
Email: contact@antikythera.xyz

Applications were opened on October, 4, 2022, the deadline is November 11, 2022 followed by interviews. Participants will be confirmed by December 11, 2022. Here are a few more details from the application portal,

Who should apply to the Studio?

Antikythera hopes to bring together a diverse cohort of researchers from different backgrounds, disciplines, perspectives, and levels of experience. The Antikythera research themes engage with global challenges that necessitate harnessing a diversity of thought and expertise. Anyone who is passionate about the research themes of the Antikythera program is strongly encouraged to apply. We accept applications from every discipline and background, from established to emerging researchers. Applicants do not need to meet any specific set of educational or professional experience.

Is the program free?

Yes, the program is free. You will be supported to cover the cost of housing, living expenses, and all program-related fieldwork travel along with a monthly stipend. Any other associated program costs will also be covered by the program.

Is the program in person and full-time?

Yes, the Studio program requires a full-time commitment (PhD students must also be on leave to participate). There is no part-time participation option. Though we understand this commitment may be challenging logistically for some individuals, we believe it is important for the Studio’s success. We will do our best to enable an environment that is comfortable and safe for participants from all backgrounds. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you may require any accommodations or have questions regarding the full-time, in-person nature of the program.

Do I need a Visa?

The Studio is a traveling program with time spent between the USA, Mexico, and South Korea. Applicable visa requirements set by these countries will apply and will vary depending on your nationality. We are aware that current visa appointment wait times may preclude some individuals who would require a brand new visa from being able to enter the US by January, and we are working to ensure access to the program for all (if not for January 2023, then for future Studio cohorts). We will therefore ask you to identify your country of origin and passport/visa status in the application form so we can work to enable your participation. Anyone who is passionate about the research themes of the Antikythera program is strongly encouraged to apply.

For those who like to put a face to a name, you can find out more about the program and the people behind it on this page.

Antikythera, a 2000 year old computer & 100 year old mystery

As noted in the Berggruen Institute news release, the Antikythera Mechanism is considered the world’s first computer (as far as we know). The image below is one of the best known illustrations of the device as visualized by researchers,

Exploded model of the Cosmos gearing of the Antikythera Mechanism. ©2020 Tony Freeth.

Briefly, the Antikythera mechanism was discovered at the turn of the twentieth century in 1901 by sponge divers off the coast of Greece. Philip Chrysopoulos’s September 21, 2022 article for The Greek Reporter gives more details in an exuberant style (Note: Links have been removed),

… now—more than 120 years later—the astounding machine has been recreated once again, using 3-D imagery, by a brilliant group of researchers from University College London (UCL).

Not only is the recreation a thing of great beauty and amazing genius, but it has also made possible a new understanding of how it worked.

Since only eighty-two fragments of the original mechanism are extant—comprising only one-third of the entire calculator—this left researchers stymied as to its full capabilities.

Until this moment [in 2020 according to the copyright for the image], the front of the mechanism, containing most of the gears, has been a bit of a Holy Grail for marine archeologists and astronomers.

Professor Tony Freeth says in an article published in the periodical Scientific Reports: “Ours is the first model that conforms to all the physical evidence and matches the descriptions in the scientific inscriptions engraved on the mechanism itself.”

“The sun, moon and planets are displayed in an impressive tour de force of ancient Greek brilliance,” Freeth said.

The largest surviving piece of the mechanism, referred to by researchers as “Fragment A,” has bearings, pillars, and a block. Another piece, known as “Fragment D,” has a mysterious disk along with an extraordinarily intricate 63-toothed gear and a plate.

The inscriptions—just discovered recently by researchers—on the back cover of the mechanism have a description of the cosmos and the planets, shown by beads of various colors, and move on rings set around the inscriptions.

By employing the information gleaned from recent x-rays of the computer and their knowledge of ancient Greek mathematics, the UCL researchers have now shown that they can demonstrate how the mechanism determined the cycles of the planets Venus and Saturn.

Evaggelos Vallianatos, author of many books on the Antikythera Mechanism writing at Greek Reporter said that it was much more than a mere mechanism. It was a sophisticated, mind-bogglingly complex astronomical computer, he said “and Greeks made it.”

They employed advanced astronomy, mathematics, metallurgy, and engineering to do so, constructing the astronomical device 2,200 years ago. These scientific facts of the computer’s age and its flowless high-tech nature profoundly disturbed some of the scientists who studied it.

A few Western scientists of the twentieth century were shocked by the Antikythera Mechanism, Vallianatos said. They called it an astrolabe for several decades and refused to call it a computer. The astrolabe, a Greek invention, is a useful instrument for calculating the position of the Sun and other prominent stars. Yet, its technology is rudimentary compared to that of the Antikythera device.

In 2015, Kyriakos Efstathiou, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and head of the group which studied the Antikythera Mechanism said: “All of our research has shown that our ancestors used their deep knowledge of astronomy and technology to construct such mechanisms, and based only on this conclusion, the history of technology should be re-written because it sets its start many centuries back.”

The professor further explained that the Antikythera Mechanism is undoubtedly the first machine of antiquity which can be classified by the scientific term “computer,” because “it is a machine with an entry where we can import data, and this machine can bring and create results based on a scientific mathematical scale.

In 2016, yet another astounding discovery was made when an inscription on the device was revealed—something like a label or a user’s manual for the device.

It included a discussion of the colors of eclipses, details used at the time in the making of astrological predictions, including the ability to see exact times of eclipses of the moon and the sun, as well as the correct movements of celestial bodies.

Inscribed numbers 76, 19 and 223 show maker “was a Pythagorean”

On one side of the device lies a handle that begins the movement of the whole system. By turning the handle and rotating the gauges in the front and rear of the mechanism, the user could set a date that would reveal the astronomical phenomena that would potentially occur around the Earth.

Physicist Yiannis Bitsakis has said that today the NASA [US National Aeronautics and Space Adiministration] website can detail all the eclipses of the past and those that are to occur in the future. However, “what we do with computers today, was done with the Antikythera Mechanism about 2000 years ago,” he said.

The stars and night heavens have been important to peoples around the world. (This September 18, 2020 posting highlights millennia old astronomy as practiced by indigenous peoples in North America, Australia, and elsewhere. There’s also this March 17, 2022 article “How did ancient civilizations make sense of the cosmos, and what did they get right?” by Susan Bell of University of Southern California on phys.org.)

I have covered the Antikythera in three previous postings (March 17, 2021, August 3, 2016, and October 2, 2012) with the 2021 posting being the most comprehensive and the one featuring Professor Tony Freeth’s latest breakthrough.

However, 2022 has blessed us with more as this April 11, 2022 article by Jennifer Ouellette for Ars Technica reveals (Note: Links have been removed)

The mysterious Antikythera mechanism—an ancient device believed to have been used for tracking the heavens—has fascinated scientists and the public alike since it was first recovered from a shipwreck over a century ago. Much progress has been made in recent years to reconstruct the surviving fragments and learn more about how the mechanism might have been used. And now, members of a team of Greek researchers believe they have pinpointed the start date for the Antikythera mechanism, according to a preprint posted to the physics arXiv repository. Knowing that “day zero” is critical to ensuring the accuracy of the device.

“Any measuring system, from a thermometer to the Antikythera mechanism, needs a calibration in order to [perform] its calculations correctly,” co-author Aristeidis Voulgaris of the Thessaloniki Directorate of Culture and Tourism in Greece told New Scientist. “Of course it wouldn’t have been perfect—it’s not a digital computer, it’s gears—but it would have been very good at predicting solar and lunar eclipses.”

Last year, an interdisciplinary team at University College London (UCL) led by mechanical engineer Tony Freeth made global headlines with their computational model, revealing a dazzling display of the ancient Greek cosmos. The team is currently building a replica mechanism, moving gears and all, using modern machinery. The display is described in the inscriptions on the mechanism’s back cover, featuring planets moving on concentric rings with marker beads as indicators. X-rays of the front cover accurately represent the cycles of Venus and Saturn—462 and 442 years, respectively. 

The Antikythera mechanism was likely built sometime between 200 BCE and 60 BCE. However, in February 2022, Freeth suggested that the famous Greek mathematician and inventor Archimedes (sometimes referred to as the Leonardo da Vinci of antiquity) may have actually designed the mechanism, even if he didn’t personally build it. (Archimedes died in 212 BCE at the hands of a Roman soldier during the siege of Syracuse.) There are references in the writings of Cicero (106-43 BCE) to a device built by Archimedes for tracking the movement of the Sun, Moon, and five planets; it was a prized possession of the Roman general Marcus Claudius Marcellus. According to Freeth, that description is remarkably similar to the Antikythera mechanism, suggesting it was not a one-of-a-kind device.

Voulgaris and his co-authors based their new analysis on a 223-month cycle called a Saros, represented by a spiral inset on the back of the device. The cycle covers the time it takes for the Sun, Moon, and Earth to return to their same positions and includes associated solar and lunar eclipses. Given our current knowledge about how the device likely functioned, as well as the inscriptions, the team believed the start date would coincide with an annular solar eclipse.

“This is a very specific and unique date [December 22, 178 BCE],” Voulgaris said. “In one day, there occurred too many astronomical events for it to be coincidence. This date was a new moon, the new moon was at apogee, there was a solar eclipse, the Sun entered into the constellation Capricorn, it was the winter solstice.”

Others have made independent calculations and arrived at a different conclusion: the calibration date would more likely fall sometime in the summer of 204 BCE, although Voulgaris countered that this doesn’t explain why the winter solstice is engraved so prominently on the device.

“The eclipse predictions on the [device’s back] contain enough astronomical information to demonstrate conclusively that the 18-year series of lunar and solar eclipse predictions started in 204 BCE,” Alexander Jones of New York University told New Scientist, adding that there have been four independent calculations of this. “The reason such a dating is possible is because the Saros period is not a highly accurate equation of lunar and solar periodicities, so every time you push forward by 223 lunar months… the quality of the prediction degrades.”

Read Ouellette’s April 11, 2022 article for a pretty accessible description of the work involved in establishing the date. Here’s a link to and a citation for the latest attempt to date the Antikythera,

The Initial Calibration Date of the Antikythera Mechanism after the Saros spiral mechanical Apokatastasis by Aristeidis Voulgaris, Christophoros Mouratidis, Andreas Vossinakis. arXiv > physics > arXiv:2203.15045 Submission history: From: Aristeidis Voulgaris Mr [view email] [v1] Mon, 28 Mar 2022 19:17:57 UTC (1,545 KB)

It’s open access. The calculations are beyond me otherwise, it’s quite readable.

Getting back to the Berggruen Institute and its Antikythera program/studio, good luck to all the applicants (the Antikythera application portal).

Antikythera’s (a 2,000 year old computer) secrets unlocked?

The Antikythera Mechanism is fascinating and a March 12, 2021 University College London (UCL) press release (also on EurekAlert) reveals the reason for the fascination before announcing the latest research into this ‘celestial’ object,

Known to many as the world’s first analogue computer, the Antikythera Mechanism is the most complex piece of engineering to have survived from the ancient world. The 2,000-year-old device was used to predict the positions of the Sun, Moon and the planets as well as lunar and solar eclipses.

Exploded model of the Cosmos gearing of the Antikythera Mechanism. ©2020 Tony Freeth.

Continuing on from the March 12, 2021 University College London (UCL) press release,

Published in Scientific Reports, the paper from the multidisciplinary UCL Antikythera Research Team reveals a new display of the ancient Greek order of the Universe (Cosmos), within a complex gearing system at the front of the Mechanism.

Lead author Professor Tony Freeth (UCL Mechanical Engineering) explained: “Ours is the first model that conforms to all the physical evidence and matches the descriptions in the scientific inscriptions engraved on the Mechanism itself.

“The Sun, Moon and planets are displayed in an impressive tour de force of ancient Greek brilliance.”

The Antikythera Mechanism has generated both fascination and intense controversy since its discovery in a Roman-era shipwreck in 1901 by Greek sponge divers near the small Mediterranean island of Antikythera.

The astronomical calculator is a bronze device that consists of a complex combination of 30 surviving bronze gears used to predict astronomical events, including eclipses, phases of the moon, positions of the planets and even dates of the Olympics.

Whilst great progress has been made over the last century to understand how it worked, studies in 2005 using 3D X-rays and surface imaging enabled researchers to show how the Mechanism predicted eclipses and calculated the variable motion of the Moon.

However, until now, a full understanding of the gearing system at the front of the device has eluded the best efforts of researchers. Only about a third of the Mechanism has survived, and is split into 82 fragments – creating a daunting challenge for the UCL team.

The biggest surviving fragment, known as Fragment A, displays features of bearings, pillars and a block. Another, known as Fragment D, features an unexplained disk, 63-tooth gear and plate.

Previous research had used X-ray data from 2005 to reveal thousands of text characters hidden inside the fragments, unread for nearly 2,000 years. Inscriptions on the back cover include a description of the cosmos display, with the planets moving on rings and indicated by marker beads. It was this display that the team worked to reconstruct.

Two critical numbers in the X-rays of the front cover, of 462 years and 442 years, accurately represent cycles of Venus and Saturn respectively. When observed from Earth, the planets’ cycles sometimes reverse their motions against the stars. Experts must track these variable cycles over long time-periods in order to predict their positions.

“The classic astronomy of the first millennium BC originated in Babylon, but nothing in this astronomy suggested how the ancient Greeks found the highly accurate 462-year cycle for Venus and 442-year cycle for Saturn,” explained PhD candidate and UCL Antikythera Research Team member Aris Dacanalis.

Using an ancient Greek mathematical method described by the philosopher Parmenides, the UCL team not only explained how the cycles for Venus and Saturn were derived but also managed to recover the cycles of all the other planets, where the evidence was missing.

PhD candidate and team member David Higgon explained: “After considerable struggle, we managed to match the evidence in Fragments A and D to a mechanism for Venus, which exactly models its 462-year planetary period relation, with the 63-tooth gear playing a crucial role.”

Professor Freeth added: “The team then created innovative mechanisms for all of the planets that would calculate the new advanced astronomical cycles and minimize the number of gears in the whole system, so that they would fit into the tight spaces available.”

“This is a key theoretical advance on how the Cosmos was constructed in the Mechanism,” added co-author, Dr Adam Wojcik (UCL Mechanical Engineering). “Now we must prove its feasibility by making it with ancient techniques. A particular challenge will be the system of nested tubes that carried the astronomical outputs.”

h/t BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) March 12, 2021 article about the Anitikythera Mechanism, which includes another image and an embedded video. The March 12, 2021 University College London (UCL) press release includes links to more information about the Antikythera Mechanism, the research, and Dr. Tony Freeth.

For the insatiably curious, I have an October 2, 2012 posting and an August 3, 2016 posting with what was the latest information at the time.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the latest paper,

A Model of the Cosmos in the ancient Greek Antikythera Mechanism by Tony Freeth, David Higgon, Aris Dacanalis, Lindsay MacDonald, Myrto Georgakopoulou & Adam Wojcik. Scientific Reports volume 11, Article number: 5821 (2021) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-84310-w Published 12 March 2021

This paper is open access and, as these things go, it’s fairly accessible reading, i.e., even someone like me who has no interest in astronomy can understand enough to enjoy the article.

Today’s post falls, thematically speaking, into similar territory as yesterday’s (March 16, 2021) posting where in addition to celebrating Urania Day I included information about astronomy and some of its history.

First major literary work (Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) developed as an app

I wanted something completely different today and found it in a May 2, 2020 article, by Lucie Laumonier for University Affairs, about a multimedia app featuring the Canterbury Tales narrated in middle English,

Four historians from Canada and England have launched the General Prologue app, the first app featuring an audio performance of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in its original 14th-century English.

“Here bygynneth the Book of the tales of Caunterbury,” says the expressive voice of the narrator. The strange Middle English words comprise the opening verse of the medieval masterpiece composed by Chaucer more than 600 years ago. The app, which launched on February 3, is available for iOS and Android users, and through a dedicated website.

A February 2, 2020 University of Saskatchewan news release (also on EurekAlert), announced news of the app’s launch and the international collaboration, which included an academic at University College London (UCL), and the late Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame),

A University of Saskatchewan-led international team has produced the first web and mobile phone app of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales–the first major literary work augmented by new scholarship, in any language, presented in an app.

“We want the public, not just academics, to see the manuscript as Chaucer would have likely thought of it–as a performance that mixed drama and humor,” said University of Saskatchewan (USask) English professor Peter Robinson, leader of the project.

“We have become convinced, over many years, that the best way to read the Tales is to hear it performed–just as we imagine that Chaucer himself might have performed it at the court of Richard II.”

The free app is the first edition in a planned series. The app features a 45-minute audio performance of the General Prologue of the Tales–the masterpiece work by the most important English writer before Shakespeare–along with the digitized original manuscript. While listening to the reading, users have access to supporting content such as a translation in modern English, commentary, notes and vocabulary explaining Middle English words used by Chaucer.

The app, an offshoot of Robinson’s 25-year work to digitize the Canterbury Tales, contains key new research work. This includes a new edited text of the Prologue created by USask sessional lecturer Barbara Bordalejo, a new reading of the Tales by former USask student Colin Gibbings, and new findings about the Tales by UCL (University College London) medievalist professor Richard North. The National Library of Wales offered its digitized version of the Prologue‘s original manuscript for the app.

The late Monty Python star Terry Jones, who was a medievalist with two influential books on Chaucer, was also instrumental in developing the content of the app. His translation of The General Prologue and his books feature in the introduction and notes. This work on the app is thought to have been the last major academic project that Jones worked on before his passing on January 21.

The app was released on Android and Apple IoS just after Jones’ birthday on February 1st, in celebration of Jones’ academic work.

“We were so pleased that Terry was able to see and hear this app in the last weeks of his life. His work and his passion for Chaucer was an inspiration to us,” said Robinson, whose work on the Tales has been supported by USask and by the federal Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). “We talked a lot about Chaucer and it was his idea that the Tales would be turned into a performance.”

Because Chaucer left the Tales unfinished at his death, there is no single text of the Tales, and scholars have to re-construct the text from over 80 distinct manuscripts, mostly written by hand before 1500.

“While the app has material which should be of interest to every Chaucer scholar, it is particularly designed to be useful to people reading Chaucer for the first time. These include not only bachelor of arts university students and school children but also members of the public who have their own interest in Chaucer and his works,” said UCL’s North.

Robinson’s Canterbury Tales project, based at USask since 2010, includes several students who are transcribing all 30,000 pages of the manuscripts into the computer to discover how they are related to each other and to Chaucer’s lost original.

“The app is important for people who do not know the history behind the production of the Canterbury Tales, and to understand how the modern concept of author didn’t exist back then,” said Robinson. “We have many manuscripts copied by hand over time, and the Canterbury Tales Project hopes to establish where they come from, how they were created and who produced them as part of that history.”

Robinson said that the team has ready materials to develop at least two more apps, in particular Miller’s Tale, the second story in the Canterbury Tales.

The General Prologue app was built around the Hengwrt manuscript of the Tales, commonly regarded as the best source for Chaucer’s text and held at The National Library of Wales. The specialist preservation and digitization work undertaken at The National Library of Wales enabled the images of the original manuscript to be presented with supporting content for readers via the app.

North’s academic research on the project includes several new discoveries. For instance, he has found evidence suggesting that Chaucer’s Knight, one of the main characters of the Tales, is at the siege of Algeciras near Gilbraltar, in the south of Spain, in 1369 instead of the commonly assumed date 1342-44.

North believes that putting the Knight at this siege puts his age nearer to 50 years old when the reader encounters him with the other pilgrims in the Tabard in the General Prologue–about the age of Chaucer himself.

Brigit Katz covered the story in a February 5, 2020 article for Smithsonian Magazine. Medievallists.net also posted a story (no date) which included two trailers for the app (you’ll find a 1:39 trailer below),

Here’s where you’ll find the app and more,

Enjoy! And for those who caught it, “something completely different” was a reference to Monty Python’s “And Now for Something Completely Different.”