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Controversy builds as shroud tests near.

Controversy builds as shroud tests near

While the Catholic Church has agreed to let scientists attempt to date the Shroud of Turin, a linen relic that many believe once wrapped the crucified body of Christ, officials have not publicly announced when. However, people familiar with the radiocarbon-dating tests believe they will begin soon -- and midst considerable controversy.

The controversy erupted last year when Cardinal Ballestrero, the Archbishop of Turin and pontifical custodian of the shroud, announced the Church had chosen three labs to date the textile (SN: 11/7/87, p.302) -- half the number a scientific consortium had recommended one year earlier. The scientists' protocol (SN: 4/25/87, p.265) also would have employed two different types of carbon-14 test procedures--the conventional proportional-counting technique (which measures emissions from radioactive carbon) and tandem-accelerator mass spectrometry (which can directly measure carbon-14 without waiting for its decay). But since accelerators need only a third as large a sample as the counter tests, Ballestrero decided to limit testing to accelerators. He further limited participating labs to those routinely dating archaeological samples.

The process winnowed the field of researchers down to those at the University of Arizona in Tucson, the Federal Technical Institute in Zurich, Switzerland, and the University of Oxford in England. It also reduced by two-thirds -- to about 40 milligrams -- the quantity of shroud allowed to be sacrificed.

Some scientists express concern about the three-lab decision. Among them are Harry Gove of the University of Rochester (N.Y.) physics department -- whose lab developed the accelerator carbon-14 dating technique -- and Garman Harbottle of Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y. According to Harbottle, there "appears to be about a one in five chance for any given measurement" that the answer will be very wrong. If there are only three labs, he says, it may be difficult to identify whose is the spurious reading.

Geoscientist Paul Damon, co-director of the Arizona tests, downplays that concern, pointing out that "we hope to get a number of [carbon-14] analyses from the 1 square centimeter of [shroud] being sent us" -- perhaps as many as seven.

Harbottle and Gove, whose lab does not routinely date archaeological samples, are just unhappy their labs were eliminated because they didn't meet the archbishop's requirements, says Robert Dinegar, a retired Los Alamos National Laboratory physical chemist and the Episcopal priest who, along with Harbottle, has been a co-coordinator of the Shroud of Turin Research Project. "Though I would like to see a counter laboratory [like Harbottle's] included," Dinegar says, "we can certainly get a viable answer from the accelerator method."

Archaeologist Paul Maloney, vice-president of the Garnerville, N.Y.-based Association of Scientists and Scholars International for Shroud of Turin Ltd., is not so sure. For a report he sent to Ballestrero last month, Maloney interviewed a number of prominent members of the radio-carbon-dating community, many of them unconnected with the shroud project. He says he found that they tend to share a "grave concern ... that accelerator technology is not yet redy to do what the Church wants it to do" -- largely because of the frequency of spurious readings from small samples. Maloney says he hopes the Church will postpone the upcoming tests to reconsider its decision to use just three labs

and the accelerator technology.

Even if the tests do begin soon, don't expect an immediate announcement of results. Damon says final results should be issued toward the end of the year in an announcement by the archbishop and in a refereed journal by the scientists.
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Title Annotation:attempt to date Shroud of Turin
Author:Raloff, Janet
Publication:Science News
Date:Apr 16, 1988
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