I began my internship in Professor Yardley’s Ancient Ink Lab on May 26. After two weeks here, I am now able to tell you way more than any person could possibly want to know about charcoal, specifically its various production methods, its bizarre Raman spectrum, and the hypothesized molecular changes taking place over time that cause spectra from documents dated around 200 BCE to be markedly different from those dated around 300 AD.
My project for this summer will be to make charcoal. As simple as that sounds, it is a project that requires lots of designing, troubleshooting, and refining. The purpose of this is to ultimately achieve charcoal that, when made into ink and analyzed using Raman spectroscopy, resembles the spectra of inks found on Egyptian papyri, thereby identifying the exact materials used to make the ink (which, as of now, is unknown to both historians and scientists alike). Over the past few years, members of the research team have done an exhaustive analysis of 17 documents from Columbia’s collection and have come up with a number of linear progressions of certain spectral characteristics. It’s our hope that my charcoal if made correctly, will fit that progression. I’ll be using samples of Egyptian Acacia wood (actually from Egypt!), which I’ll burn at various temperature for various amounts of time, then analyze the inks produced.
I mention that “I will be” doing all of this because as of now, I haven’t actually started! In order to produce charcoal, vegetable or animal matter must be burned in the absence of oxygen (which would combust, causing CO2 to be produced). Our lab has a special oven designed particularly for this purpose, but unfortunately it’s missing a part! So until this part gets fixed/replaced/rebuilt, my charcoal-making endeavors will have to be put on hold.
In the meantime, I’ve been doing reading - lots and lots of reading. In particular, I’m reading a whole bunch of scientific papers detailing various experiments designed to better understand the unique Raman spectrum of carbon. Well, perhaps the better way to say it is that I’m trying to read these papers. There’s a seemingly infinite amount of complex information written in dense scientific jargon on every page, making it a difficult and tedious process to read and understand everything. But what has been heartening is how much more I understand at the end of two weeks. On my very first day, I met with my research adviser who discussed the science behind the project with me for over an hour. Of that entire conversation, I probably understood/remembered about 5% of it. When we had our research group meeting this week, I still didn’t understand about half of the slides presented, but the miraculous thing was that there was a lot of information I understood and knew, to the point that I was able to ask questions and give suggestions! Progress!
I’ve already learned something important about my future in the sciences – it has to be with other people. Because of the lab set-up, I spend most of the day by myself reading and doing research. As interesting and exciting as the research I’ll be doing will be, however, it is sharing it with others that I find much more personally fulfilling.