Something old, something new

An excellent adventure

This month’s issue of Michigan Today presents a dazzling history of humankind. It starts in ancient Herculaneum with some petrified, blackened lumps that “survived” the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. It ends in Ann Arbor in the extended reality (XR) studio at Michigan’s Center for Academic Innovation in 2024.

The Vesuvius Scrolls, appearing like petrified croissants, in a drawer.

The Vesuvius Scrolls. (Image courtesy of Richard Janko.)

The blackened lumps are ancient, carbonized scrolls excavated from the library of Philodemus, the in-house scholar of Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. Piso’s palatial villa was buried under the pyroclastic flow spewed by the notorious volcano back in the day. The tremendous loss included a massive collection of prized papyri, likely including masterpieces of literature, history, and philosophy.

Richard Janko, U-M’s Gerald F. Else Distinguished University Professor of Classical Studies, has spent some 40 years relying on his scholarly insights, nearly infinite patience, and sharp eyesight to decipher these charred and brittle Vesuvius Scrolls.

Imagine how relieved Philodemus would be to know that his precious collection is now in the hands of such a dedicated fellow scholar. Janko tells writer George Spencer he is confident that revolutionary advances in artificial intelligence and 3D tomography will speed the process of virtually unspooling and deciphering these provocative time capsules.

It’s hard to predict how Philodemus would react if he could travel through time to reach Ann Arbor in modern times only to wander into the University’s XR studio and find himself in ancient Rome. His modern-day counterparts would explain they long ago eschewed papyrus to embrace augmented, virtual, and mixed reality using large LED screens and cameras to render 3D environments. The technology has the potential to change the way people teach and learn just as virtual production changed the film and TV industry.

“This allows our learners to practice in high-stakes environments while reducing risk,” James DeVaney, associate vice provost for academic innovation and founding executive director of the center, told writer Fernanda Pires. “It helps students develop a sense of belonging in complex areas and solve complex problems in an increasingly uncertain world.”

If only they could bend time and get a message to Philodemus so he could move his precious papyri before Vesuvius took its toll.
(Lead image: Mount Vesuvius rising above the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica.)

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