Monday, January 19, 2009

Science is Freaking Amazing

From the Chronicle of Higher Education ($):

It was a case of invention by necessity.

While in Europe researching the origins of a poem, Timothy L. Stinson, an assistant professor of English at North Carolina State University, became frustrated with the limited methods available for determining where the original text came from and when it was produced.

"And then there was sort of this light bulb," Mr. Stinson recalled. "Wait a minute, they're on animal skin. Why can't we look at DNA?"

Indeed, in the age before paper was widely available and affordable, the written word was recorded on the hides of sheep, goats, and cattle. Shortly after Mr. Stinson had his epiphany, he began putting his idea into practice. Working with his brother, a biologist who has performed DNA extraction and analysis, Mr. Stinson is developing a method of using DNA to determine when and where medieval manuscripts were written. The approach will significantly improve the accuracy of the standard identification process, which typically relies on analysis of the author's handwriting and dialect — approaches that are "notoriously unreliable," Mr. Stinson says.
The old history can quickly become the new history, and that's just a neat thing to see.

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