Rarely does a week go by when the boffins and researchers from the Massachusettes Institute of Technology don’t shock the world some stunning new piece of science or breakthrough? This week’s prize, granted it’s only Monday, goes to researchers who have figured out a way to “judge a book by its cover” or more accurately read the first nine pages of a books through their cover.

Photo by jill111 (Pixabay)

MIT researchers and their camera for books

While MIT ranks among the most prestigious engineering schools and institutes in the world in this case researchers from Georgia Tech should also be given credit for the development of a camera that can photograph pages of a book without it needing to be opened. Well, at least the first nine pages. While Google has developed machines that can handle the opening of a book for imaging as they look to digitize every book on the planet, these researchers have taken it even further thanks to the use of terahertz radiation. This emerging science may soon become commonplace in airports and other facilities that need to make sure there are no explosives passing through security checkpoints.

If perfected, the Vatican and museums around the world will be rejoicing as many books are simply too old to risk human handling but their contents would certainly merit copies of what’s held inside. While presently the researchers have only been able to go nine pages in the researchers believe that ultimately a 1000 page book could be read through this technology that, for all intents and purposes, uses raditation somewhere between the microwave and infrared spectrums according to researchers Barmak Heshmat, Ramesh Raskar, and Albert Redo Sanchez from MIT, and Justin Romberg and Alireza Aghasi from Georgia Tech.

Measuring the space between pages

Of course, in order to glean the contents of books, you need more than just radiation even if terahertz radiation and the chemicals used to produce it allowed the researchers to tell the difference between ink the blank space on the page. The team was force to write substantial software that included dozens of complex algorithms from the radiation on its return to the newly developed camera.

Short bursts of radiation are timed precisely to let the camera know when it has penetrated beyond the 20-micrometer-thick air gap and onto the next page. As it happens, the researchers didn’t use books but rather a stacked group of notecards that will be translatable to a closed book. The radiation at present is capable of penetrating about 20 pages but it can’t distinguish the pages’ (note cards) content beyond nine pages for now.

“If you have the time resolution of the terahertz spectrometer, now you can actually look deeper into multiple pages,” said Barmak Heshmat, who works at the  MIT Media Lab and counts himself among the  authors of the new paper, entitled “Terahertz time-gated spectral imaging for content extraction through layered structures.”

While X-rays can certainly see through the cover of a book, they are not able to distinguish between ink and paper and this led to the embracing of terahertz radiation that also offers clearer resolution than ultrasound technology.

So, as the technology advances, museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and others will be able to photograph books that they have zero interest in trying to handle in the traditional sense in order to photograph the contents.