This device can read the pages of a book without opening it

Leave it to the great minds at MIT and Georgia Tech to figure out a way to read the pages of a book without actually opening it.

A team of researchers from the two institutions pulled it off with a system they developed that looks like a cross between a camera and a microscope.

They said it could someday be used by museums to scan the contents of old books too fragile to handle or to examine paintings to confirm their authenticity or understand the artist's creative process.

Writing in the latest issue of the journal Nature Communications, the scientists explained how they used terahertz waves — a type of radiation situated on the electromagnetic spectrum between microwaves and infrared light — to read a stack of papers with a single letter handwritten on each page.

The device, called a terahertz spectrometer, managed to clearly read only nine pages, though it could see writing on up to 20.

"We were very excited because we didn't think we would be able to see as deep as we did," said Barmak Heshmat, a research scientist at the MIT Media Lab.

While the device is still a long way from reading an entire book, Heshmat said the team is already talking with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York about using it to inspect some of its artworks and antique volumes. The museum did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

He said it could also be used in industry — for example, to see whether there are cracks or other defects beneath the paint on an aircraft part.

Heshmat said that for now, broader uses would be limited by the cost of the device, which runs about $100,000.

The device works by directing ultrashort bursts of terahertz radiation at stacks of paper. Some of it is absorbed by the paper, and the remainder is reflected back. The signals that bounce back are then analyzed with computer algorithms that can discern individual letters.

In the study, the stack of paper had no cover, but Heshmat said he is confident the system could see through one.

Heshmat said the system works much better than X-rays, which are currently used to scan documents and paintings but entail harmful levels of radiation.

With X-rays, "you won't be able to read the pages unless the ink is written by some metal like silver or gold," he said. "But with our system, because it uses a different part of the electromagnetic spectrum, it can identify many other chemicals, so it can contrast between the blank paper and the part that has ink."

He said the project was inspired by the work 10 years ago of a group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that showed you could look through a closed envelope with terahertz waves. With the new system, he said, "you can actually look deeper into multiple pages."

Researchers not involved in the project said the technology has great potential.

J. Bianca Jackson, who developed a portable terahertz imaging lab for the Center for Research and Restoration of the Museums of France and used it to analyze mummies and find a hidden face behind a Roman fresco, said the technology can now be used more broadly because the MIT-Georgia Tech device relies on computers, rather than technicians, to interpret the vast amount of data that terahertz scanning yields.

"I think it is almost inevitable that terahertz imaging will be an important technology in numerous future applications and that sophisticated signal processing will be an important component for extracting information from the images," Brown University engineering professor Daniel Mittleman said in an email.

He said the researchers achieved "something the field has discussed for years but never demonstrated as nicely as in this work."

Related News

China says it will shut down ivory trade by end of 2017

Dec 31, 2016

China says it will shut down its ivory trade by the end of 2017 in a move designed to curb the mass slaughter of African elephants

California: $400 million plan to slow largest lake shrinkage

Mar 16, 2017

California authorities have proposed spending nearly $400 million over 10 years to slow the shrinkage of the state's largest lake

Israel's national library acquires famed Judaica collection

Jan 19, 2017

The National Library of Israel says it has acquired what is considered the world's greatest private collection of Hebrew books and manuscripts

You may also like these

Scientific dig in weird Wyoming cave yields ice age insights

Aug 24, 2016

Paleontologists digging at the bottom of a strange cave in northern Wyoming say they have uncovered a trove of animal bones from the last ice age this summer and have enough funding to head back next year to continue their search

Monarch butterfly numbers drop by 27 percent in Mexico

Feb 9, 2017

A new study finds that the number of monarch butterflies wintering in Mexico has dropped by 27 percent this year

Gene Cernan, last astronaut to walk on the moon, dies at 82

Jan 17, 2017

Former astronaut Gene Cernan, the last person to walk on the moon, has died at age 82


Recent Discovery will take you to the captivating developments in science, technology, and the universe around us. We deliver to you the latest news, theories, and developments in the world of science.

Contact us:

Trending News

ScienceAgricultural ScienceArchaeologyAstronomy Press