The Devil’s dictionary rolls on…

Today’s words: optometry, locus, teleology, microbiome, gravid, gill bars, micromolar, and derivatives of the word -scope, all explained with mathematical models and all sorts of other complicated stuff.

See the complete Devil’s Dictionary of Scientific Words and Phrases here.


all entries in the Devil’s Dictionary copyright 2017 by Russ Hodge.

optometry  a science that applies quantitative methods to the characterization of a delusional mental state called optimism.

teleology  the scientific study of 1) television sets and 2) the content they broadcast; i.e., the powerful hallucinations that occur when viewers are exposed to a television’s electromagnetic field. To avoid fatal accidents, the first type of study should only be carried out after disconnecting a television set from its source of electricity. The second should only be attempted after disconnecting the rational parts of the brain.

locus  a site in the genome occupied by a pestilential insect that prefers a diet of corn but in a pinch will eat other things, such as old shoes, slow pets, and rusty cars sitting on cement blocks in the backyard. When satiated, it retires to a tree where it sheds its outer layer, leaving a perfect but hollow replica of itself that you can place on your grandmother’s pillow, if you’re in the mood for some excitement. The plural form is loci, a word which no one knows how to pronounce, but is required when referring to a congregation of at least two locuses, until you discover that one is merely a hollow shell. (In everyday speech the plural of locus is “plague”.) Loci make frequent appearances in the Bible, usually at the moment someone thinks, “It surely can’t get any worse than this.” In one famous scene, for example, the Israelis use trained locuses to carry out a drone strike on Egypt; finding no corn, they eat a pyramid.

The Bible reports that locuses have only four legs, although any fool can see that they have six, like every other insect. Seeing six legs may be the work of Satan, however, who takes pleasure in making people believe they are seeing more legs than loci actually have. The conundrum presented by this Biblical passage remains unsolved despite the best efforts of scientists using million-dollar technology platforms, people in bars, golfers, motorcycle gangs, shoppers in WalMart, NASA, the Locus Genome Project, and the Federal Reserve of the United States of America, which is responsible for determining how much a dollar is worth. (Their reasoning is that the confusion between four and six may also arise in other situations, so no one really knows how much money is actually out there.)

Quite predictably, the nastiest, foulest discussions about locipedia take place within the theological community. At least ten Popes have been assassinated because of their stance on the issue – in fact, the true number may be higher because it is unclear whether whoever counted them used a methodology that took into account the possibility of a four-six switcheroo. Thus the true number of Papal deaths that should be attributed to locimortis may be as low as six or as high as 64. This demonstrates the need to provide a full record of protocols and computational environments in any experiment which produces more than 3 or fewer than -3 pieces of data.

microbiome  one millionth of a biome. This might be somewhat helpful if someone ever bothered to define the size of a biome, but there’s no consensus in the scientific literature. Some use the term “biome” to encompass ecosystems as vast as Antarctica, while others claim you have a whole biome living in your belly button. These two scales are so different that it is hard to see how they can be classified under a single term, but scientists learn mental contortions during their studies that permit them to do this and even stranger things.

Biomes differ not only in size, but also in composition: one of them contains penguins, for example, while the other normally does not. This breaks biomes into the two classical categories of penguin-positive and penguin-negative. Another difference is that Antarctica has almost no plants, whereas flora sometimes sprout from a belly button, through a phenomenon whose underlying mechanisms have not yet been fully characterized but have been negatively correlated to the taking of showers. Despite the lack of a rational, personalized approach to treatment, two methods are usually effective: dabbing a little weed-killer on the thing, or attacking it with a very small pair of garden shears. While the latter is a relatively minor procedure, it should only be undertaken by specialists or trained professionals, due to a risk of perforating the intestines when performing any surgical procedure on the belly button with a pair of shears. (Note that the effects of the two therapies are additive, which suggests that applying both generally leads to shorter sprouts, except in the case of a perforation, which is usually fatal to the plant after killing its host.)

gravid  an adjective used to describe someone whose body is full of eggs, either in anticipation of a pregnancy or in the aftermath of an egg-eating competition, or both. In medical practice it is important to tell the difference, usually by inserting some type of invasive probe. Another method which has performed almost as well in double-blind studies is to squeeze the person really hard. If eggs emerge from the mouth, they most likely entered during a competition. If they emerge from somewhere else, they’re probably the other type of egg, now out on the town and looking to get hooked up.

gill bars  the only regions in an aquarium where a gar can get a real drink.

micromolar  a millionth of a molar, which is a type of tooth. A micromolar happens to be the average distance that a bacterium can bore through tooth enamel in one second, as derived from the following formula:

mm1 = 1/bx (he / f * (t?)[(C – mm2) + mm3]) – DG

where mm1 represents the distance (in micromolars); b is the bacterium; x is the number of bacterium involved in drilling the same hole; h represents the hardness of the enamel, which can only be determined by solving the equation and then inverting and converting and doing whatever else is necessary to it so that he jumps over to the left of the equal sign and everything else is piled up on the right, often upside down; f is the force the bacterium is capable of applying; t is the amount of time spent actually drilling, which has to be corrected by ?, the so-called mystery variable, if t is not being measured in seconds; C is Colgate toothpaste; mm2 stands for the number of M&Ms a person has eaten in the recent past, and mm3  refers to “mom’s madness”, a quantitative measurement of the degree of physical force your mother is prepared to inflict on the anyone who fails to apply C after mm2 (note that as C – mm2 approaches zero, mm3 approaches infinity); and DG stands either for the degree of grinding that a particular molar undergoes when a person has to share the mm2 with someone of the opposite political persuasion, or Director General – I can’t remember which. Replacing the variables with true values produces mm1, which may need to be adjusted to account for the degree of freedom (otherwise known as the “fudge factor”) which means the number of times you are permitted to lie when filling in the values to solve the formula. Note that by definition, mm1 must always end up being 1; if this doesn’t happen, just change the answers for the other variables until it does. There’s a way to do this with Excel tables, but I couldn’t tell you what it was if my life depended on it. I’m having a hard enough time explaining this as it is.

The formula yields the result mm1 in terms of bacterial boring distance per second, but the result can be easily converted to minutes by multiplying mm1 by 60, into years by multiplying mm1 by 1315440, and in relation to the age of the universe up to the present date by multiplying mm1 by 1817938080000000000000000 + sn (where sn is the number of seconds that elapse between the time you read this and the moment you get around to making the calculation).

-scope  an instrument used to “check something out,” usually to determine whether it could serve as an appropriate sexual partner. The first scopes, in fact, were developed to search for genitals before scientists discovered their locations on the body. Later the suffix was attached to other types of instruments, including:

telescope  an instrument developed to look at things so far away they lie in another dimension, called teleology.

colonoscope  an instrument first developed to probe the depths of a person’s ear. Prior to its invention, no one knew the true depth of the auditory canal, so colonoscopes were made very long. With enough force the instrument could be pushed in so far that it emerged from the other end of a person. At some point scientists discovered that more information could be collected about the auditory canal by examining it from the other side, so they began inserting the colonoscope at the former exit point.

endoscope  this term was originally derived from the expression, “end o’ th’ scope,” and referred to the end that was farthest from the person in charge of the instrument, and closest to the victim. If it changed hands in the middle of a procedure, for example when the patient snatched it to end the abuse, endoscope now referred to the end held by the former patient, and the person who initiated the incident was called the endoscopee. This caused confusion in cases where two people both got their hands on the thing. If each tried to tell the other in no uncertain terms what he could do with his end of the endoscope, this produced garbled communication and often fatal results. A national committee was formed to find a solution. Eventually a consensus was reached through the creation of the new terms proximal endoscope and distal endoscope, also sometimes seen in the forms myendoscope and urendoscope, as defined by the end that was cleanest at any given time.

microscope  a type of scope that moves the eye one million times closer to whatever it is you are trying to look at. At the time of invention another theory was proposed to account for the functions of the instrument: it actually made objects one million times larger for a very brief period of time. Fortunately this is not the case, because a lot of the things you see with a microscope are disgusting enough without being made a million times larger. This early “expansion theory” of microscopy was not fully discarded until Einstein published the theory of relativity. Einstein proved that if two people with microscopes were standing on trains that were pulling away from each other at the speed of light, they would never see each other because rays emanating from the microscope’s light source would never reach the slide, unless they turned around and faced the other direction. At that point each would either see what the other person had looked like a million years in the past, or be crushed as the two trains underwent a sudden, million-fold expansion. Since neither outcome was particularly desirable, scientists discarded the theory for the one they liked better.

The microscope revolutionized science because it was so powerful it could detect things so small that they didn’t actually exist, which explained why they had been invisible to the naked eye in the first place. It also played a key role in the deanthropomorphization of science by disproving the concept of the Big Picture. Through a microscope one realizes that the Big Picture is nothing more than a lot of Smaller Pictures containing things so small they defy human cognition, unless they somehow manage to reach it by entering through an ear. Thus the Big Picture can be discarded altogether.

Understanding why this is the case can be demonstrated through a metaphor: Imagine cutting any normal puzzle into a million pieces. Now try to assemble it again. You’ll discover that this is impossible because the maximum amount of information in 1/1,000,000th of an image is an R, G, or B dot, and not even a whole one, and good luck matching that to the picture on the box. But you’ll never get that far because you’ll never find the corners. Theoretically you could, but it would take an amount of time that can be represented by the formula UP * (n)1,000,000/4!, where n = the time it takes you to locate a single corner piece that it has become so small that you have to apply the Uncertainty Principle (UP), which means that whenever you go looking for it, it probably isn’t where you think it is, and even if it were, it would be gone before you could grab it.


A new model of the profound relationship between science and communication

One reason the term “science communication” has broadened to include so many activities is that research is leaping across the boundaries of disciplines and into our daily lives more quickly and profoundly than ever before. Without a basic understanding of scientific results and the methods by which they are obtained, people can’t be expected to digest complex information about their health or the global impact of their lifestyles and respond in reasonable ways. This has stimulated diverse efforts by many types of communicators to broaden and raise the level of scientific literacy in society as a whole. The pace of science has also created challenges for scientists as they confront massive amounts of data that can only be understood by teaching a computer how to cope with them, excruciatingly detailed models, and problems that can only be solved by transcending the boundaries of classical disciplines whose practitioners come from different backgrounds and speak different languages – both literally and figuratively.

Many well-meaning efforts aimed at explaining the significance of a piece of research – or the aims of science as a whole – somehow fail. That’s true at the interface of science and wider sectors of society, but forms of the general problem are also  common within research communities, where communication is fundamental to daily practice. Good communication skills boost careers and the progress of a field. Failing to help scientists develop them, I will argue, has effects not only on their careers but also on the quality of their research. This comes from working in the field a long time and witnessing countless examples demonstrating that excellent scientists are often superb at explaining their work to very diverse audiences. Is there a connection? You don’t truly understand something until you can explain it to someone else; does this old adage hold true for the highest levels of research and communication? If so, can you make people better scientists by making them better communicators? A few years ago I decided to try to find out.

A meaningful approach to answering these questions would have to encompass both theory and practice; it would require a thorough understanding and analysis of not only the strategies people were using to communicate, but the content they were trying to get across. I had access to plenty of examples through the scientists I encountered every day, the difficulties I encounter myself in writing about their work, and from hundreds of students over the years whom I had tried to help write and present their science to many types of audiences. As a general approach I stole a page from the handbook of the early fly geneticists, who uncovered the functions of hundreds of genes by studying how mutations disrupted biological systems. Maybe problems in communication could be used the same way: maybe they could show how things ought to work.

Over several years I followed this strategy in studying communication problems and funneling much of what I learned back into the courses I was teaching. The result was a steady but dramatic change in my understanding of the relationship between communication and science. I believe that these two fields of effort are connected at a profound level that is incompletely understood and rarely explicitly discussed or taught.

This project offers a new model of that relationship which attempts to connect how scientists communicate their work – effectively or not – to deeper underlying aspects of the way they think. It shows how many communication problems stem from chaos in the laboratory: not the physical benches where scientists spend their days, but the mental laboratory they are constantly constructing and rebuilding as they learn science.

It’s in this inner laboratory that real science happens, and understanding this gives communication a fundamental role: it is a means of exposing, exploring, and manipulating the cognitive models that give every scientific question and every piece of data its meaning. Disorder in the mental laboratory almost always leads to chaos in communication, and the act of communicating science offers ways not only to detect it, but also to straighten things out. In fact, it’s often the only way to even notice that the disorder is there. Our minds make assumptions and carry out logical jumps we aren’t aware of; until they are articulated aloud, our innermost beliefs and convictions are prey to influences that lie outside of science. A scientist’s examination of any system – even before a first encounter with it – is already styled by experiences of other systems, expectations, and models built using other systems long in the past; the recognition that this generates bias and can even reach into data in ways that reconfigure it is the reason why double-blind studies are so important. By putting something on paper, scientists can carry out a more careful, analytical scrutiny of their assumptions and models – to ask the questions, “Is this conclusion founded,” or “Are other interpretations possible?” one must first see the whole train of a thought. Then it can be broken down and mercilessly queried, step by step, and weak points can be discerned.

The process of communicating science thus externalises thought to permit a self-critical scrutiny that may otherwise be impossible or at least extremely difficult. Inevitably one becomes aware of gaps that have been invisible. It allows a person, at least to some extent, to look at his or her own ideas more the way another reader would. This skill can be trained, and it is the first step toward developing distance toward a set of ideas – and even to apply the perspective of a potential audience. That process not only improves the quality of a researcher’s communication – it can also affect the work. Sometimes the only thing necessary to discover fascinating new questions and develop better models is to notice the structure of a system in a text or diagram.

Most of the models in today’s science are so complex that they can’t even be thought about clearly without some form of representation – in language, images, or mathematical formulae. Papers and talks and other communicative acts open this complexity to inspection, analysis, discussion, criticism, and correction from the community. Trying to do science without communicating it is like trying to play chess – or teach someone else to play – without a board. For those who aren’t geniuses, a physical board offers a playing field to try things out, move the components around, and probe new strategies. To become a good scientist a person needs to look at many, many games, recorded in the literature, and extract the patterns and rules that lead to success.

Today’s students are constantly flooded with massive amounts of information which they are expected to arrange in their mental laboratories in a certain way. The hypotheses they frame, the experiments they design, and the way they interpret results are manifestations – symptoms – of the architecture they have built in their heads. But the only way to catch a real glimpse of this architecture, and measure their success at assembling it, is by watching how they put their work into the larger, logical framework of a text or talk. Explaining their science to non-specialists requires stepping farther back, seeing the more basic and generic patterns that underlie models, and trying to capture those patterns using tools such as metaphors.

That’s an important process because the inner mental laboratory of science is a metaphorical one as well. When a scientist frames a hypothesis regarding a specific problem – say, the behaviour or structure of a molecule – the form of the question is determined by the concept of a molecule, and what we think others think about it, rather than the molecule itself. The simplest things we think about are highly complex models and they are intermingled in a messy knot of other concepts, abstractions, and many types of knowledge that all come to bear on how clearly we are thinking.

So I am convinced that it is no accident at all that the best scientists I know have a very good understanding of their own thought processes, as applied to science. Often they have arrived at this point intuitively, devining rules and models through an intense study of the games going on around them. There are many parallels to learning a language: small children construct models that allow them to produce grammatical sentences by taking in and imitating the sounds around them, and attaching those sounds to things in contexts that have meaning for them, and testing them against the practices of others. What ultimately comes out is a compromise between the things they want to talk about, social contracts about the meaning of words and sentence structures, genre-like expectations about what is likely to be said when and where, and fundamental aspects of the biology of our brains – the extent of short-term memory determines, to a great extent, how many things we can think about and process at once. That influences how complex a grammar can be, and it also determines how much of a model can be processed without an external reference such as a text or diagram.

The rules for how an adult learns a new language are different than those for a child, and this means that teaching must do more than delivering single facts or pieces of evidence that we expect non-native speakers to assemble properly. People come to science after a long process of intellectual development in which so many concepts and expectations are already fixed, which means that moving into an artificial system of scientific models is more like the second type of language learning. Teachers usually take advantage of their students’ intelligence by presenting them with models of sentences and methods of producing new ones for the real communicative contexts that give them meaning. The same is true for research, and looking at it this way has profound implications for how we teach science and how we teach people to communicate it. I think that these efforts are most likely to succeed with a better understanding of the complex rules by which models give scientific ideas their meaning, and an understanding of the cognitive nature of the models themselves, and an search for methods aimed at resolving these parts of the “communication problem.”

* * * * *

Some of my colleagues and other professionals in the field of science communication might be surprised that this enterprise doesn’t start with a discussion of issues we usually confront and talk about the most, such as the fact that people who have something to say about science and their audiences often have very different agendas in coming together. Their knowledge and interests often diverge very widely. Dialogues that are started as a way of generating mutual understanding sometimes lead to even greater misunderstandings, and in the worst case achieve exactly the opposite response. Audiences sometimes leave “popular science talks” thinking, “Science is so hard I’ll never understand any of it,” “Why can’t scientists ever give me a straight answer to a question?” and even, “They’re trying to hide something from me.”

Miscommunication is often the result of getting off on the wrong foot from the very beginning: a failure to consider exactly what you hope to communicate, which has to be a function of a rational decision about what it’s possible and desirable to achieve with a specific audience, and what you expect them to do with the message. The usual result of this failure is a mis-match: a message doesn’t resonate because it hasn’t taken into account an audience’s interests, needs, or their motivation in entering into a dialogue in the first place.

These situations and less severe symptoms of poor communication are deeply connected to the cognitive models by which we navigate science and nearly everything else in our lives. They constantly arise in teaching because most of the students I deal with have never been introduced to very basic principles of functional communication, where success depends on a good understanding of the message one wishes to share, the expectations and knowledge of the target audience, and the modes and genres that are available to deliver it. The quickest path to a communicative breakdown is a mis-match between any of these things.

My experience is a meaning-based approach to teaching communication – which in science requires thinking about the connection between specific questions, results, and models – is extremely effective at solving these more fundamental problems. In following entries regarding this project I will use examples to explore the details of this model of science communication and how it can be translated into a didactic approach. In science, the first step toward solving a problem is usually to articulate a question very clearly. The same thing is true in teaching: to help a student acquire skills, we should first grasp what they need to learn. Communication begins with the construction of meaning, and the better we understand that process, the better we will be able to teach researchers to explain what they mean – no matter whom they need to address.

Russ Hodge, Sept. 2017

The Bible of Elaziğ (3)

Part three

(For the beginning of this story, see the earlier posts at part 1 and part 2.)

Five months after my reunion with Ali in the S-bahn in Berlin, I found myself on board a small passenger flight from Istanbul to the city of Elaziğ in Eastern Anatolia. My friend Markus and I were glued to the window, watching the drama of the panorama as it unrolled far below. On this late afternoon in March, the rugged landscape had the seemingly infinite detail of an etching traced into copper by the blazing sun.

We were nervous and high with the adventure of it all. At times we felt like characters in a spy novel – fully aware that in real life, they often end badly. Long ago at the university I’d seen the movie Midnight Express, which had left me with inescapable stereotypes of Turkish prisons, weeks of nightmares, and a lifetime phobia of passing through customs. A couple of years before I had been shaking like a leaf as I entered Turkey with Fred Luft’s group, even though – unlike the movie’s antihero – I wasn’t smuggling heroin across the border. (In fact, although my colleagues hadn’t told me this at the time, the cart I was pushing was loaded with drugs. Not heroin, but antihypertensives… When I learned this, later, I thought I’d have a heart attack on the spot.)

This time there was no reason to worry as we entered the country. Neither my name nor that of Markus would mean anything to anyone, and the only people who knew the purpose of our trip were members of a close-knit family who had the best possible reasons to keep it secret.

Coming out of the country might be a different matter.

This trip had been planned in so much haste that we’d arrived in Istanbul that morning with no idea of how we would manage the next leg of the voyage. A travel agent in Heidelberg had assured us that there was an airport in Elaziğ, but he couldn’t make reservations from Germany. “It will be easy from Istanbul,” he assured us.

Markus was cool with this laissez-arriver approach to travel, but it had been 15 or 20 years since I had done the backpacking thing. When you’re young, “Have sleeping bag: will travel” works fine. Now I found myself wondering, “Did I pack my toothbrush? Will I be able to buy one at the airport?”

In fact all we had to do was debark in Istanbul and change counters, at which point we found we could get an amazing rate to Elaziğ – the tickets for a round-trip transfer amounted to something like 100 Euros apiece. It was a relief because my wife and I were footing the bill for this whole adventure (with the help of a very generous sponsor who will remain anonymous until he decides to out himself).

The urgency of our preparations meant that I knew almost nothing about Elaziğ, except its location on the map and that it lay in a province of the same name. The river Euphrates begins in this region. If you follow its flow to the southeast, to the place where it encounters the river Tigris, you reach the purported site of the Garden of Eden. To the east, on the Armenian border, lies Mount Ararat. Mythical or not, this is incredibly exotic fare for anyone imprinted in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

I was traveling farther east than I’d ever been before. Once I had been to the island of Cyprus on another adventure that had taken me into the depths of a prehistoric copper mine, in the company of an archeologist, in pursuit of another story. But Elaziğ lay a few hundred kilometers nearer to the source of the rosy-fingered dawn.

* * * * *

Pursuing the script had reached a dead end. With the family’s consent, I’d finally uploaded a sample to an Internet site devoted to ancient alphabets, without saying anything about the purported content of the text. Maybe it would excite some fanatical devotee of this arcane subject. But aside from a single on-topic but ambivalent response, the posting drew no bites, and the discussion quickly meandered off into matters that were wholly irrelevant.

At the same time my Turkish associates were clearly under stress from their mysterious partners abroad. Word about the manuscript seemed to be leaking out – little wonder, with so much at stake. Yet given their intent to control the situation with the government getting involved, this was extremely dangerous.

Ali kept giving me reports of new events. A team from Switzerland had arrived in Turkey, he said, and was trying to get in touch with the holder the document. Another tale involved a group of Israelis. Both groups had been shown a picture or two, he said, but had never seen the object itself. The Israelis, supposedly, had offered to buy the book for 26 million Euros, sight unseen. In retrospect both stories should have seemed like the wildest exaggerations. But when you’re up to your elbows in something as fantastic as this, the demarcation between the real and the fantastic was easily blurred.

There was still the possibility of trying to decode the text using computational methods. But I was unwilling to start a process that might make a stranger aware of its contents without some sort of authentication. In the meantime another expert had raised a further objection: parchment would have been valuable material in ancient times, he said, so why fill the pages so sparsely? Counterargument: the beauty of the book suggested a treasured document, to be regarded almost as art, rather than a object of practical value to be passed from hand to hand.

Any further involvement on my part, I finally told them, would require a certainty that we were dealing with an ancient manuscript, rather than a modern forgery. That would be impossible without carbon dating the object, which meant obtaining a physical sample.

And I remained intensely concerned about the family’s efforts to preserve it. If they hadn’t done anything, every day that passed was damaging the book; it might become unreadable, or simply dissolve into dust. Since I had been unable to speak with anyone directly – the person they were talking to spoke only Turkish, and I’d only heard the Berlin half of their conversations – I wasn’t convinced they were taking adequate measures.

Regarding the contents, from an academic point of view, one could work with excellent photographic reproductions as well as the original. I had been told that infrared photos stood the best chance of detecting details that might reveal traces of forgery. A perfect record would also be of incredible value itself, in case the book was damaged, siezed, or destroyed.

A flurry of telephone calls passed between Berlin and Turkey. Finally it was agreed: I would be permitted to come see it in person with one friend, who would photograph the entire book. I could also obtain a sample for testing. The only catch: we’d have to travel to the far eastern part of Turkey, on our own dime.

* * * * *

Markus is a talented artist I met many years ago while working in Heidelberg. He worked downtown in a coffee shop where I’d sometimes hole up to write while nursing a monstrous caffeine habit. Markus’ vocation was photography, but the studio route wasn’t his gig. He preferred the unfettered life of a freelancer, paying his rent through occasional hours in the coffee shop. His real work was picking up: recently he’d been hired by the city theater to take images for their posters and brochures. He was also a master of pinhole photography, a method he had used to take beautiful images of Heidelberg for a calendar. He was allowed to hang them in the coffee shop and sell them over the counter to customers.

I’d noticed and asked about them once during a coffee run. “Markus took those pictures,” I was told. He wasn’t in at the moment, but he had regular hours. We met a day or two later and after that, whenever I came in, we’d talk about photography and art.

So he came to mind when I began looking for someone to capture a record of the Bible of Elaziğ. I’d already approached another photographer friend, who reluctantly turned me down. I could live with the legal murkiness of the situation given that the book might turn out to be a forgery. But if we found out it was real, the actions of its owners might well cause a dilemma with ethical and moral dimensions beyond the purely legal ones. I was willing to cross that bridge when I came to it, but I couldn’t expect anyone else to draw their line in the same place. Whoever got involved needed strong nerves.

Markus, on the other hand, was game after we’d talked the whole thing through. He’d do some checking on his own regarding the technical requirements of photographing an ancient manuscript, but in principle he had the necessary equipment. So I went to a travel agent – a Turkish immigrant with whom I had had many conversations and planned many trips – and began looking into flights.

* * * * *

The airport in Elaziğ was a scene of total melee. The moment we debarked, passengers flowed into a throng of relatives, other people pushing forward to board the plane we’d just exited, yet others huddled around simple stands selling soft drinks and chai. Right outside the main exit there was something going on involving crates of chickens that I never figured out.

Markus and I were so obviously strange that people stopped in their tracks and stared, the way they might have regarded a pair of extraterrestrials.

Originally my Berlin contacts had intended to accompany us, but things fell through at the last minute and we were on our own. I had a cell phone number for a person who was supposed to meet us. Each time I tried to call, a man aswered in Turkish; I tried to explain our situation but couldn’t make sense of his response against the din in the backgroud. I shrugged helplessly. We stood in front of the terminal and peered across the parking area, to the long line of cars creeping along the road on the far side.

We decided to walk across the parking lot; the moment we reached the road, a slender man wearing a dark blazer got out of a car, holding a cell phone. By some miracle, it was our contact. There was an advantage to looking like total aliens.

The Berlin contingent had assured me that he spoke German; it was, to put it kindly, another exaggeration. From broken sentences we pieced together that he had spent a couple of years in Hamburg, but it had been a very long time ago. We could barely communicate as he gestured us into his car and drove us to a hotel in the center of town. Markus and I dumped our bags in a double room, then returned to the lobby. Where were served chai.

There our communication with Abdullah, as I’ll call him, seemed to reach an almost total impasse. We understood that he’d pick us up the next morning – and he’d bring along a translator. Another “cousin”, named George, who’d been studying in England.

* * * * *

After a night of tossing and turning, I woke to a stunning view out the window of mountain crests hovering over the colorful chaos of the city. Markus and I made our way down to the hotel restaurant. For breakfast we found the usual fare of joghurt, strong cheeses, bread, and small boxes of cereal – no sliced salami in a country where pork was considered unclean.

Abdullah and George joined us as we ate. We were immediately relieved to find that George had been studying philosophy in Oxford, and his English was impeccable. Finally a way to communicate; we no longer had to untangle Abdullah’s limited German vocabulary distilled through Turkish grammar.

George was there simply to introduce himself. Abdullah would take us around in the morning, he said, and he promised to join us again for lunch. Until that point he had heard nothing of the Bible or the entire situation; as the story came together for him, in two languages, he simply gaped at the three of us. He peppered Abdullah with questions, then us, faster and faster, caught up in the excitement and the madness of the whole thing.

Finally he had his feet back on the ground and could translate. Some of my assumptions were quickly dashed – Abdullah was not really the relative of the Turks I had met in Berlin. Nor did he have the book directly in his possession. He was arranging a meeting with the owner.

We discussed our plan to photograph the entire thing with George. Capturing infrared images of 105 pages, plus the object itself, would require a darkened room and plenty of time. Markus and I had scheduled the work for that day and the next; our return flight was scheduled in two days. It was essential that we see it as soon as possible.

Abdullah peppered George with questions. What, precisely, were our intentions? What would happen to the book?

I tried to explain that our priority was to capture high-quality photographs of the document before it experienced damage through handling or exposure to the air. We would also need a small sample of the document that would be submitted to carbon 14 dating. If it turned out to be authentic, at some point it would pass into the hands of experts who would surely spend years studying it, in a way which would ensure its survival and dissemination to the world.

This was a sort of fencing – edging around the legal and ethical issues at hand. Whoever possessed the book was obviously interested in maintaining control of it, despite the fact that Turkish law dictated it would have to be turned over to the government, at least if it had been found within national borders. But high-quality photographs of the document would be immensely valuable in their own right. They would not only serve as a source of vital information, particularly if it began to disintegrate, but be the basis for a translation. And they could also be used to create facsimile copies that would be of interest to scholars everywhere. Not to mention that a collection of the earliest preserved examples of Christian art would be published on the front pages of newspapers everywhere throughout the globe. The rights to the images alone could be worth millions. It might be a way for the finders to profit from their discovery without committing a severe violation of governmental regulations.

For now, though, we were still acting on the assumption that it might be a forgery. If so, as long as they didn’t try to sell it, it was simply a sort of work of art whose legal status was questionable.

The way the discussion was going had made George nervous. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to talk about anything financial,” he said. I agreed – the main thing at the moment was simply to get access to the book.

George had an appointment and promised to meet us later, for lunch. Until then, Abdullah would “show us around,” he said.

* * * * *

The morning dissolved into a strange sequence of scenes: climbing into Abdullah’s car, driving around, parking and walking by storefronts. He exchanged greetings with nearly everyone he met. At one point we entered a sort of alley between two tall buildings with shops lining either side. The windows along the whole row seemed to be filled with gold, shaped into watches, rings, jewelry, platters… We entered one that was barely large enough to hold the three of us and the shop owner, an aged man with a beard. He produced three stools from somewhere, then disappeared behind a door in the back. When he returned he was bearing a large pot (silver, not gold), from which he poured us – what a surprise – black tea.

A store filled with gold had to have excellent security… I wondered if we were about to get our first look at the Bible. Was it here, locked away in a safe, somewhere in the back?

It turned out this was just a social call. Or something. His eyes moved from Markus, to me, to Abdullah. He’d ask a question and Abdullah would answer. We had no idea what they were talking about. This went on through two cups of tea and lasted about half an hour. At that point Abdullah stood up abruptly and indicated the door.

It was one of three or four such stops, meeting various characters – all men – who offered us a constant stream of chai and cookies. I looked at Markus, who shrugged. I shrugged back. George told us later he never quite learned how Abdullah made his living. Perhaps, he said, going from shop to shop, making obscure deals. If so, it was a type of business that subsisted entirely on conversations carried out between men, and it was impossible to imagine a woman breaking into such a system.

Thinking back, I suppose everything that happened to day belonged to another series of tests, like those I’d apparently passed in Berlin. The paranoia was understandable, given the magnitude of what was going on. But it would have been nice to know a bit about the nature of the game and the criteria for success.

George rejoined us at lunchtime at a fast-food place with long tables and benches that reminded me of picnic tables pilfered from a campground. The food was good, but it was noisy inside – no place to talk about shady undertakings. Then it was back into Abdullah’s car for a ride somewhere else; I don’t remember where. Along the way I kept stressing the time factor to George. Both Markus and I had obligations in Germany that would make it impossible to postpone our flight back. We had less than 48 hours and an immense amount to do in that time.

Later in the afternoon we learned that it wouldn’t be possible to see the book until the next day. But we’d be picked up in the morning – the very first thing. Or so Abdullah promised, speaking through George, who was obviously just as frustrated as we were. He, too, had been infected by the possibility that we’d soon be looking at the earliest known version of a document pertaining to the New Testament.

* * * * *

George joined us for breakfast in the hotel, and Abdullah finally pulled up to the entrance of the hotel in the late morning. He found us waiting in the glaring sun at the curb, nervous and overly aware of the countdown to our departure from the country. Markus loaded his camera and equipment into the car and we headed off on a strange tour of the city, along a zigzagging route through narrow streets. We weren’t fitted with blindfolds! – I thought, ironically – but they weren’t necessary. We never could have retraced the maze of turns through an unfamiliar city.

Eventually we ended up in a suburb of low houses and a couple of apartment buildings set at the very edge of the city; beyond was a field with matted brown grass that stretched into a barren plain, then began a steady rise directly into snow-covered mountains. Abdullah gestured us out of the car, approached one of the houses, and rang the bell. We were greeted by a young man in a dark suit who gestured us inside.

We came into a living room complete with television set and recliner lounge, a long sofa, with a table in the middle and some chairs; the scene might have come straight out of American suburbia except for the bright floral patterns of the sofa cover. During my trips to the North I’d noticed such loud patterning everywhere – on the drapes, the furniture, tiling on the walls, women’s scarves. Minimalist aesthetics hadn’t reached the interior of the country. This room was relatively subdued, with a pale brown carpet and nothing hanging on the walls.

There we were greeted by a short, elderly gentleman wearing a headcap and a loose white robe. He gestured at two younger women and three or four children, who instantly vanished into the kitchen. Later George told us he was a Kurd, the population that made up most of the population of Elaziğ and the southeastern regions of the country. I never learned his name.

We submitted to many more questions. What were our intentions, our interest? I answered carefully and respectfully. I went through the whole story again, starting again, pausing for George to translate. I told him I had seen images and pursued the script through the libraries.

Did we want to buy the book?

No, no, I quickly replied. We wanted to help them determine whether it was truly as old as it appeared. We might be able to put them into contact with scholars who would study it for many years.

The old man nodded from time to time. He spoke for a while and George said: “This man has spent his whole life looking and has found many, many valuable things. He has seen this script and others before, and he says he can even read a part of it. He says that when the contents of the book become known, this will change the world.”

“What has he learned?”

The answer was lengthy. George paused to think and said, “It will change the relations between Christians and Islam.” The old man spoke again. “You are the first people he has ever shown it to, outside the family. There are others who are interested, but they have only seen two photographs.”

“We must photograph the book, to ensure that there is the best possible record,” I said. “We’ve brought special equipment.”

If we were willing to help the family bring the book to the world, the old man said, we could take photographs. And he said we would be free to do with them whatever we wished – as long as we made sure that the world learned about it.

What he meant was completely unclear, but Markus gave me a wide-eyed look. We had discussed the potential value of even just the photographs of the document. None of this meant anything, of course – we didn’t have them yet, and if the book was authentic, there was no guarantee that the law would permit their use.

“Where exactly was the book found?” I asked.

He replied that it had been discovered in a stone box, part of a sepulchre, perhaps, somewhere on the border of Turkey, Syria and Iran. With a war raging in the area, it might be argued that such a find was a desparate means of rescuing an artifact that otherwise might very well have been destroyed. But these were matters of law, about which we could say nothing.

It was finally time to see the Bible. The old man gestured to his young relative, who disappeared into the next room.

part 4 coming soon

More technology transfer cartoons…

More from the OTTers (officers of technology transfer) today… This series is dedicated to my friends in the field, in honor of their patience as they encounter pitches that are… well, a generous way to put it would be “creative”. Often the first step in a project is to reach up and snag a basic researcher and tie him or her firmly to the ground, so they don’t end up sailing toward the stratosphere like a helium balloon. Because we know what happens to those.

For more cartoons, scroll down or select the category “Molecular biology cartoons” from the menu in the banner above. Enjoy! Pass along to your friends!


The Bible of Elazığ: a backroom to a parallel universe (2)

The first part of this story appears in an earlier article on the blog, which you can find here.

Part two

Ankara lies in the highlands of Central Turkey, in the center of this enormous country that sprawls along the entire coast of the Black Sea to the north, bordering Georgia, Armenia, and Iran to the east, Syria and Iraq to the south, and Greece to the west. The western coastline borders the Mediterranean; far to the north is the site of the mound of Hisarlik, where archeologist Heinrich Schliemann uncovered the ancient site he claimed to represent the city of Troy of classical antiquity. His discovery convinced many scholars that the tales of Homer were rooted at least partially in real, historical events. While researching another book I had discovered a curious fact about these excavations: one participant had been Rudolf Virchow, the famous Berlin physician whose work became the foundation of modern cancer research.

The boundaries of modern Turkey were fixed during the 19th and 20th centuries as a result of events over the long history of the Ottoman Empire, machinations that followed the First World War, and the subsequent war of independence headed by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The result is a huge territory that encompasses a multitude of cultures which have been extraordinarly difficult – some consider impossible – to integrate under a single political system. Istanbul and its inhabitants pursue a modern, Western lifestyle. Central regions are occupied by diverse populations grouped under the collective term “Anatolian”. The southeastern region is home to a vast group of Kurds with close cultural ties to populations in Iran, Iraq and Syria. In many cases the fates of the youth in this region are almost wholly dictated by the patriarchs of their villages, whose main interest appears to be the perpetuation of ancestral lifestyles, and dictate who may get an education and who may marry.

Ankara is home to a beautiful Museum of Anatolian Civilization and Culture which displays the ancient, turbulent history of this vast country. It has been occupied and overrun by virtually every Mideastern and Mediterranean culture since the times of the ancient Babylonians and Sumerians. A walk through its rooms passes exhibits containing 40,000 year-old relics of a prehistoric culture dedicated to the Earth mother, monumental heads of Sumerian kings, friezes recounting the Epic of Gilgamesh, and so on into modern times.

As I began looking into the plausibility of an ancient Bible, I discovered that early Christians had spread through central and eastern Turkey during the first and second centuries, establishing small communities devoted to the new cult of Christ. As far as I knew, the oldest religious manuscripts were written on scrolls of papyrus – but then I discovered that in about the second century CE, the Christians in precisely these regions began producing the first modern books. They wrote on parchment made from the skins of antelopes, goats, and gazelles, which were often bound and often wrapped in leather. So far, everything was consistent with the images I had seen.

Ancient documents, sculptures and other relics continue to be found throughout Turkey all the time, often by modern looters. Many never see the light of day. Some disappear into the hands of private collectors. Others are immediately snapped up by the Turkish government, under laws which give the regime automatic ownership of all artifacts of historical value.

The intent is absolutely valid: to protect objects of cultural importance, ensuring that they will be appropriately handled and become part of the public heritage. But this system presumes that the authorities will protect them and deal with them wisely. There have been many cases where artifacts disappear and end up on the black market anyway; others vanish for decades and reappear under suspicious circumstances. And there are rumors that early Christian documents that do not support Muslim interests have simply been destroyed.

Clearly any involvement with such artifacts puts a modern scholar on shaky legal ground. As my inquiries into the manuscript progressed this made me highly uncomfortable, but I justified my actions the following way: first, the document might well simply be a forgery, in which case the statutes probably wouldn’t apply. Secondly, they did not belong to me, and I had no say in their fates. Third, I would have no part in any attempt to remove them from the country. Fourth, it was completely unclear whether the document had actually been found in Turkey at all. There was reason to think it had been discovered across the border in Syria or Iraq, where wars had devastated all sorts of amazingly valuable artifacts. In that case, a rescue attempt was completely justified.

But the most important consideration on my part was the concept that if this artifact were real, it would be one of the most momentous discoveries in cultural history. Modern scholarship pertaining to the early Christian era stretches back to the efforts of the early Church to align the New Testament with the old and sanitize early accounts of historical events, and there it stops. The modern gospels appear to have been written in the first and second centuries CE, but the oldest existing versions date to the fourth or fifth centuries. Any document older than that – particularly one in an unknown language and script – would surely provide stunning new insights into the events described in the gospels. Its content might differ from others that have been passed down in incredibly significant ways.

Although I was raised in a Protestant church, I am not in any sense a believer in any traditional Christian sense of the word. But whatever this document contained belonged to the entirety of humanity. And whatever happened, whatever my personal feelings, I was determined that its contents should be made available to the world. That could be done through a photographic record of the manuscript.

* * * * *

I began talking to experts and combing through on-line archives of ancient scripts, hoping to identify the alphabet in which the manuscript was written. If that problem could be solved, the text would be readable. Someone had photographed the entire document, producing 105 pages that were still entirely legible.

I was constantly alarmed that something might happen to the manuscript. I knew nothing about the person who possessed the book or the conditions under which it was being kept. My very first effort was to ensure that it wouldn’t be damaged through mishandling or simple exposure to the air. If it was real, it had clearly been unearthed very recently, and unless extreme measures would taken it would rapidly begin to decompose. Once the document came into the possession of experts, it would probably never be touched by hand again, but only handled under the most careful measures required to ensure its long-term preservation.

My contacts in Berlin refused to put me in touch with the owner. I repeatedly pled with them to tell their Turkish relatives to go to a museum or institute with expertise in the conservation of manuscripts and obtain some sort of climate-controlled box where it could be stored. They promised to do so. Later I discovered, to my horror, that none of these requests had been followed.

* * * * *


The script itself was magnificent: written in a clear hand apparently from right to left, with four straight lines per page. Beautiful characters slanted into each other and ended in strange half-circles. None of the experts I consulted could help with the script.

One Biblical scholar was highly skeptical – he knew of no written language that combined diacritic dashes and dots with the sort of strange, linked, cursive circles and crosses and s-like forms. “Probably a forgery,” he said. But who would invest such an immense amount of effort to invent such a form of writing from scratch, and eke out over a hundred pages that must say something – if it could never be read at all? Whoever had written it – ancient or modern – was telling some story, in some language. If it was a forgery, it was madness – but there was a method to it. If it was a forgery, why so many pages? Why invent an entirely new script? To make it more difficult to detect the fact that the forger didn’t perfectly master some ancient dialect? Think of the effort required to pull this off – and to keep going, for 105 pages!

I discovered that the third century CE was a time of immense linguistic innovation, in which any language might be written in virtually any alphabet: ancient Aramaic with Greek or Roman characters, ancient Latin in Hebrew letters, Arabic characters used to represent completely different languages…

The beauty of the writing itself was so seductive that I began spending vacation days holed up in the archives of the University of Heidelberg, poring over catalogs of scripts from all possible ancient sources.

The most similar writing systems seemed to be early Arabic alphabets called Nabataean, Jazm, and Musnad, Arabic Kufic, Pehlavi, Old Syriac, or Old South Arabian. Examples can be seen in the following reference: Abulhab, Saad D. “Roots of Modern Arabic Script: From Musnad to Jazm.” Sawt Dahesh. 50-51 (2007-2009), published by CUNY Academic Works and available online here.

The resemblance was never complete, but such early Arabic scripts date from different centuries and different locales. It was plausible, given the time and place in which it was presumably written, that this manuscript might hold the only known example of a particular script. But I kept looking, and even now I keep my eye on discoveries of new scripts and manuscripts – thinking that someday, one of them will leap out and match it.

I can only warn you: don’t go down that rabbit hole. After hours everything blurs into one another and you begin seeing similarities everywhere. One day I was sure I had pinned the script down when I stumbled across some reproductions of “ancient Greek magical papyrii…” The next morning I woke up, took another look, and realized there was virtually no resemblance at all.

* * * * *

During a crazy adventure you shouldn’t be deterred by petty obstacles such as not being able to read a language, or identify the language, or even the alphabet it was written in.

In fact, the uniqueness of the script itself might not pose an insurmountable obstacle. If I could break the system into individual letters, methods from computational linguistics could be applied. It might be pinpoint elements of vocabulary and structure that would identify the language, and at that point someone should be able to read it.

That would be a costly effort, and it would require bringing in someone passionately interested in deciphering the document. It would also require having more than just a sample; I’d need photographs of the entire manuscript. It would also mean bringing in another outside party who would be the first to know its contents, and yet was willing to keep the entire story under wraps until we could establish the authenticity of the book.

That would be a huge risk considering the fantastic potential value of the artifact. If it were real, judging from other historical manuscripts, the value of this book would well over 100 million Euros. And that was a conservative estimate.

Before undertaking anything of the sort, it would be necessary to definitively exclude the possibility that it was a modern forgery.



The story continues in Part three, coming soon.

The Bible of Elazığ: a backroom to a parallel universe

Bizarre, serendipitous adventures in science communication

Part one

This incredible story goes back a few years and adheres as closely to truth as memory and my notes permit. I have changed some names, for reasons that will become clear. It began a few months after I had finished a book called The Case of the short-fingered Musketeer, which concerns the heroic efforts by physician/scientist Friedrich Luft and his lab to discover genetic mechanisms underlying essential hypertension. I covered that story in the book, as fully I could. But except to a few close friends, I’ve never recounted the extraordinary events that happened in its aftermath.

To put things into context, the research carried out by Fred and his group involved a family of farmers living in Northern Turkey. They suffered from a genetic disease that was thought to be unique at the time, but over the course of the project Fred’s group uncovered a number of other families around that globe that are affected. People suffering from the hereditary condition called Bilganturan’s syndrome have very short fingers and toes, a short overall stature, and amazingly high blood pressure.

One unusual aspect of the group’s research was that the Turkish family had been actively involved in the project for many years, which made their perspective an important part of the story. When I told Fred I wanted to write a book about their work, he decided to mount a new trip to visit the family on the Black Sea. I tagged along on a week-long expedition, where the scientists collected samples that would eventually lead to the solution of the family’s unique condition. Later we paid a visit to a Nihat Bilganturan in Ankarra, the physician who had written the first paper about the family’s disease in the early 1970s. He was an amazingly colorful figure whose work had taken him to the US, Saudi Arabia and around the world – I’m still hoping that a massive autobiography that he was working on will be published someday.

Those two visits represented my entire experience of Turkey when I set out to write the Musketeer book. That obviously wouldn’t do: so much of the tale revolved around crossing cultural and societal borders, and two of the main characters were young physicians whose Turkish parents had immigrated to Germany in the 1960s. One branch of the family affected by the disease had moved to the Stuttgart region. To have any hope of realistically portraying their thoughts and their lives, I carried out extensive interviews with many of them – usually through translators. But I still needed more.

Living in Berlin brings you into daily contact with many such immigrants and their children, from all walks of life. Whenever I could I began engaging these people in conversations, in hopes of improving my understanding of their situation. One of those chance encounters led to the wild and unexpected adventure I’ll describe here.

* * * * *

For ten years I’ve had a small apartment near the S-Bahn station in Pankow, not one of the glamourous areas of the city. The steady rise in rents is a sign that things are improving, but the cafés and shops in the neighborhood have had a hard go of it. Just as you get to know the regulars, a place changes hands.

The corner near my place used to be occupied by one of those night shops you find all around Berlin. Mostly run by Turks or other immigrants, their main source of income is a flow of pedestrians who stop by for beer or cigarettes, then step outside to smoke and drink. They bring their empty soldiers back inside, collect the refund, then buy the next round. The city hadn’t yet toughened up on indoor smoking, so there was a perpetual cloud emerging from a back room where they had a row of computers that people could use to surf the Internet. It was handy if you needed a late-night e-mail fix, but hard on the lungs – and you certainly didn’t want to watch the surfing habits of the denizens that hung out there.

The place was run by two middle-aged Turkish men who would chat the ear off anyone who expressed an interest in their home country. When they found out about the book I was writing… Let’s just say they began considering themselves key, confidential informants on every possible topic. I had long reached the saturation point by the night somebody broke in and absconded with their computers, upon which the place passed into the hands of a younger generation of German Turks and a new set of informants.

I didn’t see the original owners again until about two years later, when I was at the Friedrichstrasse in Berlin, running late for some appointment. I ran up the steps to the S-bahn and arrived on the platform just as the doors of the train were closing. I jammed my way in, sat down, and tried to catch my breath. When I’d recovered enough to take in my surroundings, I noticed a short, hefty guy with bristly white hair sitting across the aisle, staring at me. I couldn’t place him until he came over to sit down next to me. It was one of the original owners of the shop.

The first thing he said was, “You’re a scientist, aren’t you?”

No, I said, but I certainly knew enough of them.

“We need your help,” he said.

* * * * *

Such moments of serendipity happen in Berlin all the time, and there’s no predicting what will come of them. You meet people by chance, talk about nothing in particular, and then run into them a couple of years later when your lives have entered a new phase.

Ali, as I’ll call him here, was cagey about the topic on his mind. The first step was to exchange cell phone numbers. Maybe we could meet in a day or two down by the Yorckstrasse? It sounded like a small adventure; how could I possibly refuse?

So the next Saturday I took the S-bahn to the station south of Potsdamer Platz. Ali collected me on the platform and led me down the stairs, then on a long walk farther to the south down a boulevard lined with trees. We turned east and walked a hundred meters more where he stopped, opened an unmarked door, and gestured that I should enter. Inside was another world: a Turkish tea shop.

I hadn’t noticed them before, but in certain neighborhoods you’ll find many such doors; at any moment they might open to reveal a cluster of men, reading newspapers and drinking tea and arguing about impenetrable topics. Here there were four or five guests sitting around a table, engaged in the usual activities under the drone of a television set mounted on the wall. It was tuned to one of those strange dramas that had been perpetually running on the TV in the restaurant of our hotel in Turkey: a melange of soap opera and family story in which people would shout at each other; someone would unexpectedly burst into tears, followed by the sudden appearance of a gun. An utterly foreign dramaturgy that was impossible to follow if you didn’t know the language.

As we entered the shop, conversation broke off abruptly and the heads of the men turned to rake me with a suspicious, penetrating stare. Ali said something that seemed to appease them; after a comment or two they turned back to their newspapers. A young man emerged from behind a counter and, without asking, served us black tea in small, glass cups. The tea was steaming hot and had to be taken in small sips. We chatted about something; I don’t remember what, but it was nothing meaningful.

What am I doing here?

After ten or fifteen minutes of this, Ali stood up. “Come,” he said, and gestured toward a door behind the counter. We passed into the back room, a combination between office and storage room, with a desk littered with papers, stacks of boxes, and an ancient leather sofa creased and stained by ages of wear. There was a rust-encrusted bicycle leaning against one wall. Ali moved some stuff off the sofa. “Sit,” he said, and I sat down on the sofa, sinking in deep. Now really wondering what I was doing there.

My host sat down at the desk and shuffled some papers around. He got out his cell phone, scowled at it a while, and punched in some numbers. An excited conversation. He hung up and smiled at me. “You want some more tea? I’ll get us some more tea.” And he left.

Ten minutes later he returned with tea and another Turkish man who hadn’t been outside – tall, thin, balding, with black horn-rimmed glasses. Mehmet, let’s say. We sipped and once again, talked about nothing in particular for a while. The newcomer asked about my work, in a way that suggested I was being cross-examined. To turn the tables, I asked about his work.

“I’m a lawyer,” Mehmet said.

Mysteriouser and mysteriouser.

* * * * *

This was the first of five or six meetings that eventually took place in that tea shop near the Yorckstrasse or another nearby. Each time I had the feeling I was undergoing some sort of test, and each test I passed unlocked a bit more of an incredible story. Later I understood that the people I was meeting had very good reasons for their extreme caution and distrust of strangers. But at the time this all seemed like a bizarre symptom of a cultural code I didn’t understand – especially since they had approached me for help, rather than the other way around.

It was the third meeting, I think, when they asked me if I had any experience with “very old things.”

What kind of old things?

Very old… objects.” Mehmet’s eyes were glued to my face.

“Old” could mean almost anything – historical? archeological? paleontological? I had nothing like professional experience in any of those domains, but if he was talking about something truly ancient, I’d at least gotten my feet wet. As a high school student I’d joined a month-long paleontology trip across the state of Kansas, which culminated in the discovery of a dinosaur near Lake Wilson. Then at the university I’d fulfilled part of my science requirement with classes in archeology. The high point of that period was a year in Bordeaux, where alongside an intensive program to become a French teacher, I’d taken a year-long course in prehistoric art. Most weekends the professor would take us on expeditions to the caves of the Dordogne, where we’d stand under glowing painted figures of animals or follow a herd of mammoths that had been engraved on the walls of the twisted corridors. Once we spent four hours walking through the grotte Rouffignac carrying only lanterns, which was as near as you could get to the experience of a prehistoric sculptor who had followed the same route 30,000 years ago. For some reason those ancient artists rarely depicted humans; when they did, the images were usually tucked away in nearly inaccessible corners of the caves. At one point the guides lowered us students down into a hole on a rope, one-by-one, to bring us face-to-face with a drawing of a human head.

I came out of my reverie, and realized that I was tired of whatever game Ali and Mehmet were luring me into. If they wanted my help, it was time to let me in on what was going on.

“What kind of objects?”

They gave each other a long glance. Finally Ali said, “A cousin of mine, in Turkey… found some things. Very old manuscripts. We would like to know what they are.”

“Where are these things?”

“In Turkey,” Ali said. A pause, and another glance. “But they have pictures.”

He didn’t have them now, he said. But he would call his cousin, who might be able to send some. “Maybe you can come back tomorrow.”

* * * * *

Finally catching a glimpse of the pictures took two more trips to Yorckstrasse and two more visits to the back room, then an invitation to dinner in a Turkish restaurant. There we were joined by a third man whose name I never learned and whose relationship to this strange band of “relatives” – as was the case for Ali and Mehmet – never became completely clear. Later I found out that the term “cousin” was being used in the broadest possible way. And that my new-found acquaintances were playing fast and loose with some of their facts. But they’d succeeded in hooking me with a story and drawing me into an adventure that was just beginning.

Ali finally resolved some issues with the Internet – his “relative” was only willing to provide the images on a secure server for the shortest possible time. The first time we tried to log on – from another shop with Internet access – they had already been deleted. The second time we could scroll through a few of the photos. There was a thick brown book wrapped in some kind of warped leather, and a few shots of inner sheets of parchment containing drawings and line after line of a very odd script that resembled nothing I’d ever seen before.

It was impossible to say anything from images alone, of course. But I had to admit that the thing looked old – amazingly old.

The manuscript was 105 pages long, completely legible, and the images were stunning and incredibly intriguing. There were several crosses, in styles I didn’t recognize. Another image represented a snake, curled in an S-like form followed by the strange script. Its tail was curled around what looked like an infant.

Later they told me that the images had been examined by an expert. If his analysis was to be believed, the book was a Bible, although no one had been able to decipher the text. From the images they believed it to represent a part of the New Testament.

And one of the initial pages with a cross held a notation – written in what the expert claimed was a recognizeable dating system. If their interpretation was correct, the book dated from the year 232 CE.

Unbelievable. Especially given the fact that the oldest extant New Testament manuscript anywhere in the world – except for a few fragments – dated from the third or fourth centuries CE!

What to do? Armed with a few images that they were finally willing to part with, I decided to hit the libraries and talk to scholars from the fields of ancient manuscripts and Biblical history. It was immediately clear that a true Biblical manuscript even remotely that old would be a momentous, Earth-shaking finding.

All of this had dropped into my lap completely by accident, but if there was anything to the story at all, I had to pursue it.

The story continues in Part two, coming soon.