A couple thousand years ago, a mountain in southern Italy exploded, taking the Roman citizens below by surprise. Until that moment, the residents of Pompeii and Herculaneum thought Vesuvius was just another mountain. But when the big one hit in 79 A.D., it transformed several coastal cities into a time-capsule of hot ash and mud—the remnants of which archeologists continue to sift through to this day. One of the most significant finds, a library at Herculaneum, also has been one of the most difficult to decipher. The library’s papyrus scrolls were considered too fragile to open because the ancient lava flow had turned them into charcoal.
And until Vito Mocella, an expert in condensed matter physics and electromagnetism, decided to devote his career to making the scrolls legible again. Feeling more Dr. Jones than Tony Stark, Mocella left his former gig developing invisible tanks for the Italian government to investigate burnt-to-a-crisp antiquities. And he’s just about cracked their code. Using a type of X-ray vision similar to a CAT scan, Vito and Papyrologist Daniel Delattre have been able to look through the scrolls, one page at a time. The record of an entire civilization—once lost, but now found.