New Book Reveals Scientific Controversy Surrounding Turin Shroud

June 09, 1997

Harry Gove, a physicist who took his quest to determine the age of the famed Turin Shroud all the way to the pope, has published a book recounting the remarkable clash between science and religion that he witnessed in the decade-long struggle to subject Jesus' purported burial cloth to the rigors of modern carbon dating. The book offers readers the first behind-the- scenes peek into the very public wrangling over the shroud.

Gove, now a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Rochester, was one of three researchers who in 1977 developed accelerator mass spectrometry for carbon dating, a technology that definitively disproved the authenticity of the Turin Shroud 11 years later. Gove's book, Relic, Icon or Hoax? Carbon Dating the Turin Shroud, tells how he was soon swept into the all-encompassing debate over the shroud -- a relic that has mystified Christians ever since its first recorded appearance in 1353.

The 14-foot by 3-foot strip of linen bears a faint but haunting likeness of a naked man who shows all the marks of crucifixion described in the Bible, including strategically placed blood-like stains. It is now stored by the Roman Catholic Church in the cathedral at Turin, Italy.

"I wasn't even aware of the Turin Shroud until my interest was sparked by a letter I received in 1977 from an Anglican priest who had seen an article in Time magazine about our work with accelerator mass spectrometry," Gove says. "He wanted to know if this technology -- which accurately determines the age of artifacts by measuring carbon isotopes in samples of only fractions of a milligram -- might be used on the shroud."

Over the next decade, Gove and a handful of other would-be shroud analysts successfully took on reluctant church officials, culminating in a dramatic 1986 meeting with Pope John Paul II followed by a workshop on procedures for dating the shroud. Gove and company also overcame the interference of a group of rival scientists who were certain of the shroud's authenticity. Finally the church relented, but it allowed tiny fragments of the shroud to be tested at only three institutions; much to Gove's chagrin, Rochester was not among them.

"I was most disappointed (a monumental understatement)," he writes. "I wanted the job to be done right. Using only three labs was not the right way to do it."

After years of intrigue and delays, the first scientific analysis of the Turin Shroud on May 6, 1988 revealed it to be other than Jesus' burial shroud: The flax from which it was made was harvested within three decades of the year 1325.

The lull in the Turin Shroud debate prompted by this finding has recently given way to new speculation. Some scientists, who continue to insist on the shroud's authenticity, have suggested that the carbon dating was skewed by contaminants on the shroud.

Gove questions these claims. "The shroud would have to be 70 percent contaminants for the dating to be so far off," he says.

Scientists and shroud enthusiasts alike have received the book favorably. "This book ... is written by a top scientist in the style of the best investigative journalism," writes Colin Humphreys, a materials science professor at Cambridge. "The story is absolutely fascinating, with a constant interplay of science and religion, and a surprising amount of intrigue and suspense."

Relic, Icon or Hoax? Carbon Dating the Turin Shroud, published in October 1996 by the Institute of Physics Publishing in Philadelphia, sells for $35.

University of Rochester

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