Doomed Planet

The Turin Shroud and climate change

Television is the medium whereby most of the “settled science” of global warming is presented to the general public in small, fright-size dollops. It is so easy to accept the smooth talking, ever-confident scientist, with graphic backdrops of parched landscapes, crumbling ice-shelfs and shrinking glaciers, and believe that the approaching doom-times are both inevitable and absolutely our own fault. Science morphs into a religion belief. 

This Easter Sunday on television was certainly a Christianity Free Zone. The closest that commercial TV got to recognising this great religious event was The Devil Wears Prada on Channel 10 while the national broadcaster, the ABC, managed to launch a three-part series called Little Devil, a drama totally divorced from events that unfolded nearly 2000 years ago… and for which the nation was enjoying a four day break. Our ABC is nothing,if not politically correct. 

It was left to SBS to show some sense of occasion by broadcasting in the 7.30 prime time slot a documentary entitled Turin Shroud — The New Evidence. What was truly extraordinary about this film was not only the historical background to the Shroud, but the “settled science” associated with the cloth’s authenticity. And the great drama in this, as with global warming, all got down to that most pesky of substances — carbon

Briefly, the Shroud of Turin was believed by many to have been the funeral wrapping used to cover the body of Jesus Christ immediately after his crucifixion. The Shroud was said to carry the imprint of the Christ’s face and body, in the form of slightly indistinct markings, which when corrected for the wrapping-folds, produced the impression of a crucified man. 

Like climate-change/global-warming advocates, who started out with a theory then set about to find the evidence; in 1978 a group of eminent scientists set about to debunk the Turin Shroud by subjecting the linen garment to the best scientific examination available. With permission of the Roman Catholic Church the Shroud was made available for 120 hours of extensive x-ray, photography, fibre examination and spectrum analysis. 

The examination, and manipulation of the photographic images of the Shroud proved that the man had indeed been subject to crucifixion. The palms of the hands were punctured as if nailed to a cross and there were traces of blood on the victims forehead. Space-age re-imaging recreated the face and body. But it was one thing to prove that the images on the Shroud was that of a crucified man — but quite another to say it was that of an incident that happened 2000 years ago. 

What was needed was a date for the Shroud. How old was this piece of linen? There is one legend that the Shroud first appeared in 544AD in a Christian community in the city of Edessa, located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It was said to have been found in a wall above the Edessa city gate. Pollen and dust samples confirm a middle-eastern origin for the cloth. 

In 1356 the Shroud turned up in France, apparently brought back from the Holy Land, or Constantinople by a mysterious French knight, Geoffrey de Charny. The Shroud then took on a life of its own, starting out as a holy relic in the French village of Lirey in the Church of St Mary. Sometime in about 1535 the Shroud was damaged in a fire and the sisters in Chambery’s Poor Clares Convent “repaired” the burnt Shroud. 

For 200 years the Shroud was acquired and disposed of by various French bishops, abbots and nobles, carted about France and Italy before ending up in Turin in 1578 to a military parade and cannon salute. Buy this time the Shroud’s adventures warranted a Dan Brown novel. 

The 1978 scientific examination of the Shroud revealed that the image on the linen is neither painted or artificial, but the result of the wrapping of a newly deceased man and some natural staining process. The scientists failed to prove that the Shroud was a forgery, so their next ploy to discredit the Shroud was to request a small sample be taken from the Shroud for carbon dating. The Vatican finally agreed to a small sample being cut from Shroud and the carbon dating was undertaken by various esteemed laboratories in Europe and America. On October 13, 1988, Cardinal Ballestrero, Archbishop of Turin announced that the results of the carbon dating revealed the Shroud to be approximately from a period around 1325 AD. 

It was a triumph of science over myth, legend, history and religious belief. The Shroud was a fake! The science was settled. 

Unfortunately, like man-made climate change, the science was not necessarily settled. And like climate change theory, there were annoying scientifically-untrained sceptics. Two of these sceptics, Ohio health-care workers Joe Marino and Sue Benford, started to research the photographic evidence available on the internet. They discovered, by magnifying the images taken by the 1979 scientific examination, that the threads used for the carbon dating in 1988 were in fact taken from a repaired section of the Shroud, worked on by the Sisters of Poor Clares convent. The carbon dating was invalid. The scientists were miffed. 

Further investigation revealed that the sisters had carefully substituted cotton for linen and that the cotton had been dyed to match the original linen thread. So some of the great forensic minds of the twentieth century got it wrong. The issue here is not so much whether the Shroud of Turin is the authentic linen that covered the body of the crucified Christ but the perceived infallibility of science. 

Two points emerge from this Easter Sunday documentary. In respect to the Shroud of Turin, the science is certainly not settled. Secondly, academics and scientists dismiss sceptics and untrained amateurs at their peril. 

Oh! The mysteries of Carbon.

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