University of Rochester

From the Iceman to the Shroud: How a Physicist's Work is Providing Answers to a Range of Mysteries

January 19, 2000

One scientist's work has been instrumental in proving that Vikings thrived in the New World five centuries before Columbus, that the Shroud of Turin is far too young to be the burial cloth of Jesus, and that scientists vastly underestimated the radioactive effects of the Hiroshima bomb. Harry Gove, professor emeritus of physics at the University of Rochester, has plumbed some of the most intriguing mysteries of the 20th century using a technique he helped pioneer called accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS). Gove has now written a book about his experiences: From Hiroshima to the Iceman: The Development and Applications of Accelerator Mass Spectrometry .

Accelerator mass spectrometry, which saw its first successful demonstration in Gove's lab at the University in 1977, is a procedure researchers use to count single specific atoms in a bone, cloth or other organic material to determine when the progenitor of that material died. AMS dating allows scientists to use a tiny sample of material-just a few milligrams-to accurately date objects thousands or even millions of years old. In his career, Gove has used AMS to answer many quandaries, but sometimes the answer has proved more puzzling than the question.

"AMS was used to date a settlement called Monte Verde in southern Chili-about 30 miles in from the Pacific," Gove says. "The site was dated to more than 13,000 years old, which makes it much older than any other settlement in any of the Americas. But if the Americas were settled by people coming across a land bridge over the Bering Straits, which is the general assumption, how can the oldest settlement be at the bottom of South America?" The age of the Monte Verde settlement raises the possibility that its inhabitants arrived after sailing the Pacific Ocean, 13,000 years before Magellan.

Other subjects Gove covers in his book include determining the age of the Dead Sea Scrolls, fossils, and the amazingly well-preserved corpse of a Neolithic man frozen in the Otztal Alps in Italy. He has also used AMS to answer more recent questions, such as evaluating the radioactive effects of the Hiroshima bomb and discovering that the radiation pattern was nothing like what scientists had predicted.

Gove is now working to use AMS to help control toxic waste. Since AMS can detect other atoms besides carbon, it can be used to trace such things as the flow of underground water supplies. Gove believes AMS can efficiently track almost any amount of contamination that seeps into the ground surrounding a toxic waste dump site, thus providing an early warning in case the site begins leaking.

Editors Note : Harry Gove lives in Penfield. His book, which sells for $30, is published by the Institute of Physics Publications.