STURP got its priorities entirely wrong. Result – no real scientific insights.

Strange. I was going through the transcript of Barrie Schwortz’s TV interview yesterday (the subject of the previous posting) and was deciding how to tackle, indeed whether to tackle at all, his assertion that no group of scientists could have done a better job than STURP.  I went first to the site that lists all the STURP members (except the quickly edged-out Walter McCrone), and began grouping under different headings – university academic, clinical/biomedical/engineering/instrumentation. It very quickly became apparent that STURP was hugely biased toward a practical hands-on physical science/engineering background, and even those who might be seen as providing a more theory-based approach were operating at the more applied end of their specialist areas.

I’ll post the results in due course, once the survey is fleshed out with detailed information on each members accomplishments prior to signing up. (Google Scholar is proving to be quite an eye-opener there). But for now let’s say that the hazards of doing this survey are clear – that some would see it as a dissing exercise, to which my reply might be – no, but it’s a counterweight to some of the over-hyping of STURP and its individual’s credentials.

Fortunately a posting on Dan Porter’s site this morning suggested a quite different approach that might be taken, namely to put oneself in the position of those US team leaders back in the late 70s, and ask how one would have defined STURP’s brief, and how it might be best staffed in order to achieve that brief.  One thing seems fairly obvious: STURP found next to nothing that could be described as conclusive, either as regards the image or the blood. While some might see that as proof that STURP was  not pushing a supernatural agenda, the failure properly to address the forgery aspects (bar looking for paint pigments) has in fact served to promote authenticity by default. (“Science failed to provide answers, so my supernatural or even naturalistic  1st century scenario is every bit as valid as your medieval provenance, more so in fact”). Shame about the radiocarbon dating (but that was a total  “fiasco” bla bla)

So here’s something I have rapidly penned, adopting the new tack of asking what might have been done if folk had a proper sense of scientific priorities, Think of it more as a comment than a posting, and I may in fact tack more on the end later.


Prepared earlier this morning and copied/pasted. Apols for any repetition.

What should have been STURP’s main brief? Who should have been recruited to address that brief.

One thing is for certain: the concentration of effort on showing the Shroud is not a painting with applied pigment was poorly focused and, if the truth be told,  somewhat pedestrian.

Why? For the glaringly obvious reason that the Shroud image is a light/dark reversed negative – and a somewhat unattractive one at that –and artists, least of all medieval ones – do not paint negative images.

Before there was this, the pleasing "positive", showing a photograph-like image of a real Christ-like person...

Before there was this, the pleasing “positive”, showing a photograph-like image of a real Christ-like person…

... countless generations of shrine-seekers had to be content with this (but were probably able to recognize it as being probably a contact image, even if positive/negative/light/dark reversed was not part of their vocabulary.

… countless generations of shrine-seekers had to be content with this (but were probably able to recognize it as being probably a contact image, even if positive/negative/light/dark reversed was not part of their vocabulary. But contact image from what- real person, alive or dead, or merely an effigy?

Why on earth would they choose to do that?  Yes, STURP should have looked for pigment, in order to be thorough., but by failing to address and recognize the Shroud’s chief distinguishing and puzzling, nay enigmatic  characteristic, and failing to focus on reasons for the negativity, they quite frankly failed in their task (sorry, someone had to say it). The sad STURP summary says it all…  All that work, and so little to show for it.

Long before any airline tickets to Turin were purchased, STURP should have been brainstorming the reasons for the Shroud image being negative, backed up by some experimentation.  Surely one at least of the prospective team would have been able to join up the dots and say “Hey, it’s obvious. It’s a contact scorch, like the kind a rancher gets with a cattle brand. That’s why it’s negative. That’s why it’s non-directional.”  That then might have been the cue for someone to suggest there could be other kinds of scorch, say by radiation. That should in turn have promoted a lively debate on how realistic it is to imagine that any kind of radiation could be brought to a focus sufficient to produce an image without lenses, collimating devices etc. Radiation should have been put on the back burner.

Of course there would be some who would object to this direction. They would have said that the starting point of negativity was excessively anti-authenticity. They would have begun to insert more and more references to radiation  into their comments.

What you then do is to  invite the radiationists to give a seminar, detailing how that form of energy might conceivably give a negative image on linen. But one would insist that it met rigorous scientific standards, and was not attempting to bypass or rewrite the laws of physics. If it seemed that the radiationists were displaying an a priori  bias towards  authenticity, failing to give proper weight to the negativity issue, failing to see that testing of a medieval provenance hypothesis was the top priority,  then a hard-nosed director of research should have put his foot down: STURP is a scientific enterprise, and is not attempting to invent a new branch of knowledge called theo-science, one that plays fast and loose with the scientific method, especially the need for hypothesis-testing.

The next step is to ask what detailed tests can be done to prove or disprove a contact scorch, and if the latter, how thick.

Having established one’s scientific priorities, how does one select  one’s team? The first thing to do is recognize that linen is a botanical entity that retains some of the ultrastructural features of flax stem bast fibres, but maybe not all in native state, due to retting.  So the first appointment should have been one or more botanists,  with detailed knowledge of the plant cell wall (primary and secondary) and well equipped with light and scanning electron microscopes. Those botanists, when appointed, would probably have wasted no time in pointing out that the most superficial layer of linen fibres if the first formed primary cell wall (PCW).  For starters one needs an analysis of flax PCW composition in terms of carbohydrates and lignin. That would require a second key appointment- a carbohydrate chemist.  He or she would do model  studies initially to determine what proportion of PCW and/ or SCW carbohydrates need to be chemically or thermally modified to produce a visible discoloration (a “burn mark” or “scorch”).

Note that none of this is being “wise after the event” The starting point is that negative image, the “elephant in the room”, and tailoring one’s research protocol to address that striking characteristic,  instead of wasting time and effort on less targeted propositions like ”it could have been a painting”. But I still expect confidently to be told I’m being wise after the event. Oh no I’m not. Oh yes you are…

The second obvious target for investigation should be the blood, but that should have been looked at from the perspective that if the image were a contact scorch, implying forgery, then the blood would almost certainly have been added second. Blood first, if found, would argue for authenticity, maybe prompting a review of scorching mechanisms other than simple branding. Blood second would virtually clinch it for forgery, only requiring radiocarbon dating for confirmation.

Yes, there was commendably a digestion test with pronase enzyme to establish which came first, blood or image, and it did seem to suggest blood was there first. But on so crucial an issue, there should not have been just one test, but an entire battery of tests, probing the bloodstains by as many means as possible. Adhesion? Test with sticky tapes of different pulling power. Mechanical abrasion? Ultrasonication? More later (maybe).

Back here (midday)

The question as how to address the authenticy of the blood needed the same meticulous planning, so as not to go into completely blind. For a start it required the services of a specialist haematologist, and of forensic experts experienced in identifying the sources of old blood stains (human, animal?). It needed a realistic assessment of how much material would be needed to stand any chance of arriving at conclusive answers. Would sticky tape specimens as supplied to Adler and Heller really suffice (curiously neither accompanied the team to Turin, and for all we know made no input into sampling protocols, having to be content with what they were given).

One has first to envisage the progressive stages of blood degradation. One has to do that first for haemoglobin, the major oxygen-carrying protein. One has also to do it for other major blood constituents – serum albumin, bilirubin and other bile pigments, DNA (from white nuclei and mitochondria), lipids (cholesterol, free fatty acids, triglycerides, phospholipids).

(Afterthought: there’s a subtlety that needs to be recognized first, namely the difference in the way that the narrative of macromolecule time-related degradation differs from that of small molecules. Take ascorbic acid (VitaminC) as an example of the latter. A nutritionist might monitor the decreasing levels of Vitamin C on storage, with scarcely a reference to the degradation products, and as long as there is SOME intact ascorbic acid be unwilling to write off the food as non-nutritious from a Vitamin C point of view. But if one is dealing with a macromolecule, the decay pattern is different. There may be NO  truly native material after a short time, but enough characteristics remain  intact to get a positive test of sorts for one or other feature of the molecule. Think of it like the difference between a faulty password and corrupted software. The faulty password is instantly rejected through having a point fault. Corrupted software may continue functioning as point faults accumulate, but there finally comes a point when it becomes so loaded with faults as to make it unusable, and indeed virtually unrecognizable. Think of haemoglobin as an entity that does not just suddenly decline and disappear – it just gradually fades from view, and at some point, probably arbitrarily chosen, one has to be content with the conclusion that it may once have been native haemoglobin, but one cannot be absolutely certain.)

One gets the impression that survey was not done. Had it been done then Adler would not have invoked, or claimed, the presence of bilirubin, a light-sensitive molecule that is notoriously prone to photodegradation (the writer spent 2 years working in a dimmed lab, monitoring bilirubin photosensitivity in studies on possible mechanisms for the phototherapy of neonatal jaundice). Any claim that bilirubin was there, and responsible for the alleged “permanent bright red colour of Shroud blood” should have been received with the utmost scepticism and subject to the most intense scrutiny of experimental procedures.  (But since Adler made no attempt to isolate and characterize it, using readily available technology, I say it was not there – see previous posting).

Back to that haemoglobin – surely the most distinctive marker for fresh blood (especially when intact red blood cells are still visible under the microscope although less so as it undergoes progressive degradation.

First there are all the uncertainties as to the physical state of the blood. Has it clotted, as one might expect in the absence of anti-coagulants, and if so, where is the haemoglobin? Is it still inside recognizable red blood cells or has some or all leaked out into serum?

So immediately there is a problem – the gunge aka crud factor. The molecules one is interested in are associated with the gunge of the recently deceased cell. The problems of age-related deterioration making still more gunge, ever more intractable to deal with, has to be anticipated upfront and strategies proposed. If there are biomedical people on the team, it goes without saying that one uses mild and chemically-inert reagents (detergents, organic solvents etc ) to weaken associations. Adler’s resort to hydrazine to solubilize blood should frankly never have happened. That was a failure on the part of Adler, technically (he especially should have known one does not use a chemically-reactive substance to free the molecules one is trying to isolate) and arguably of  management too for appointing a porphyrin specialist with a background in synthetic organic chemistry (described wrongly by Barrie Schwortz as a “world-renowned blood expert”) and failing to keep a close watch on protocols. No haematologist, biochemist or physiologist would have employed hydrazine in an extraction procedure. (Why is it I continue to spell out these simple chemical facts of life time and again yet get little or no informed feedback – am I the only (bio)chemist interested in the Shroud?)

Even with the complication of gunge, there is a major problem in using haemoglobin as a marker for real blood. What is one to measure, given the progressive breakdown with age?

native soluble haemoglobin (an association of globin protein, protoporphyrin IX and iron(II) -> methaemoglobin (as before, but with oxidation of iron(II) to iron(III) with expected change in colour from red to brown ->assorted haemochromes etc with varying degrees of protein denaturation (unfolding) and associated decrease in solubility -> haematin (iron-porphyrin complex after separation from insoluble degraded protein -> free porphyrin and free iron(III).

Even this  scheme is simplified, since it omits all the spectral changes that accompany binding of various alternative ligands to the iron(III) site, of which there is a long list of candidates (water, nitrites,  etc).

At what stage does one have to say that a particular stain may be blood, but not necessarily blood from a recently-deceased human being? Painted-on blood?

Enough of the procrastination. Any research team with real blood experts would know that any finding on ancient blood would be so riddled with uncertainties and hedged around with qualifications that a phased, step by step approach was needed, starting with the basics. Organic molecules degrade with time. Simple inorganic ions don’t, and they stay in situ, being involatile. The first priority should have been to get a full and detailed profile of major physiological ions in the blood v non-blood areas. If it’s real blood, regardless of origin, it should have the typical ionic composition of living or even dead tissue, notably a a high potassium content.

If it does not pass that screening test then it’s pointless to continue on the assumption it is real blood, or even haemolysed serum.  If  the macromolecular haemoglobin can escape from damaged red blood cells then so can potassium – indeed the latter can escape from undamaged RBC that are not kept supplied with ATP and other energy sources to power the ion pumps that maintain high intracellular K+ (potassium) and low Na+ (sodium). But Adler reported little or no potassium, yet tried to explain that away in an authenticity-scenario, the same way that he tried to explain away so much assuming that crucifixion and trauma would do this or do that. It was arguably NOT the function of STURP to go explaining away anything. What was needed was publication of all the data in easily accessible form (not behind STERA paywalls) and an opportunity for others with far more knowledge and expertise in biomedical sciences than Adler’s to make an input, instead of being presented with his take-it-or-leave it package of pre-interpreted data.

There’s a common misconception among those who don’t “do” science that it is entirely objective and detached, and woe betide anyone, notably  on web forums, who suggests otherwise. That view sees science as kind of vacuum cleaner – one simply goes in, sucking up all the strands of evidence and then goes away to make sense of it all. Unfortunately, nature is rarely so 0bliging as to leave trails of clues as to how a particular item of interest came to be the way it is. So there’s vacuum cleaner science that rarely gets anywhere, and there’s intelligent science that is totally at ease with the takings of positions that some might see as opinionated, bacause that is the nature of real intelligent science – it is a model-building exercise, or rather serial model-building.  Yes, one can be as opinionated as one wishes at the outset, as long as the model building leads to the framing of testable hypotheses that in turn leads to lines of experimentation, hopefully fruitful, that one might not otherwise have thought of doing without that initial blue sky thinking. Science is an interplay of mind and eye, and it does not have to be a cold logical mind. Reason, i.e. as in reasoning plays a big part, obviously, but that does not have to be construed as the application of cold hard logic. If as one suspects the initial model in the minds of STURP was that the TS was merely a painted image (or that it was necessary to disabuse others of that idea) then it was the wrong model. It failed to make use of what was already known, notably the negative “imprint” like character. It failed to ask why anyone would go to the trouble of producing an imprint-like image, and more importantly HOW they would set about doing  it.   STURP, for reasons best known to itself,  tried to skip the essential pump-priming stage of thinking up front.

More to come.


About Colin Berry

Retired science bod, previous research interests: phototherapy of neonatal jaundice, membrane influences on microsomal UDP-glucuronyltransferase, defective bilirubin and xenobiotic conjugation and hepatic excretion, dietary fibre and resistant starch.
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