Saturday, January 4, 2014

Physicists and archaeologists at odds

Particle physicists have been conducting underground experiments designed to detect the evidence of mysterious and elusive dark matter, which they theorize accounts for 85% of all the matter in the universe. One of the best shields for these extremely sensitive experiments – some of which are conducted a mile underground – is lead. But recently mined lead contains tiny amounts of radioactivity, which leads to false positives. Ancient lead, however, that has been preserved underwater has over 1,000 times less radioactivity than modern lead. What fills this bill? Ancient Roman anchors (IMAGE ABOVE) and ballast from Roman ships that sank up to 2,000 years ago and have remained in place. This puts the physicist at odds with the protectors of our cultural heritage. Archaeologists study the Roman anchors to understand ancient metallurgical methods, but also to reconstruct the region's economies and global trade. The ancient lead is not in short supply, but the ethics – and possible commodification – of its use are currently in question. The issues are being studied by Elena Perez-Alvaro, a doctoral candidate in underwater cultural heritage maritime law at England's University of Birmingham, who calls for formal regulation, since there is no reference anywhere to the use of shipwrecks for the purpose of experimentation, a new but scientifically valid use of them. Her collaborator, Cambridge University physicist Fernando Gonzalez Zalba, agrees and speaks for those in his field: "We follow the idea of 'salvage for knowledge and not for the marketplace.' Dark-matter searches follow under the idea of research for knowledge. Therefore I believe the resources should be granted if required under the adequate regulation and archaeological supervision."

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