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Granular Sand by Julien Chopin, PhD Candidate in Physics

Physics Alumnus Profile: Ray DuVarney '62, Ph.D. '68

Ray DuVarney '62, Ph.D. '68 was among the first students to study in Clark's newly-formed graduate program in physics, established in the mid-1960s. After earning his Ph.D. from Clark in 1968, he accepted a position in the physics department at Emory University, where he is chair of the department. An expert in solid state physics, astronomical instrumentation and gamma ray spectroscopy, he's currently playing a crucial role in recovering a Leonardo da Vinci mural in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio that no one has seen in 400 years. Here he discusses his idea to look for da Vinci's masterpiece.

How did you get involved in this effort to find a lost Leonardo da Vinci mural?

I was at a conference in Sicily about solid state devices called "Scientific Detectors for Astronomy." It had nothing to do with art, but the plenary speaker was Maurizio Seracini, an engineer who uses special technologies to recover and restore art. He has been trying to find this da Vinci mural, entitled "The Battle of Anghiari" for 32 years. At the end of his speech he talked about the painting being possibly hidden behind a wall behind a Giorgio Vasari fresco in Florence's town hall, called the Palazzo Vecchio, and asked the group if anyone had ideas about how to find out if the great painting is there. At the time I didn't say anything, but when I went back to my hotel and thought about it, I told my wife 'I think I can do this.' I met with Maurizio the next morning and told him my idea. Then when I got back to Emory, I met with some of my colleagues who are nuclear physicists, came up with a proposal, and sent it to Maurizio. He liked the proposal.

What is your idea?

I like to build cameras. I've been doing it for years. My idea is to build a kind of camera that can see through the wall. In physics it's called gamma ray spectroscopy. It's not a new technique; I just think I have a new application for it.

The concept behind this is that we'd shine neutrons at the wall. They won't react much if they interact with light elements like like brick. But behind the wall there could be pigments of paint that contain heavy metals that are more likely to absorb neutrons. When these neutron particles hit heavy metals, like the heavy metals used in da Vinci’s paint pigments, they are absorbed and quickly give off high-energy x-rays called gamma rays. Those gamma rays correspond directly to each particular type of metal. By counting and measuring the wavelengths of the returning gamma rays, I think we can plot an image of what is behind the wall.

When do you get to test this out?

The status is up in the air right now. Maurizio is working on the funding, which we have been lucky enough to get some of, and the politics with the Italian Ministry. You know if you mention the work "neutron," people immediately think they are dangerous. In large doses it's true, but we need such low power doses for this experiment that they could actually be shipped safely via UPS. I certainly hope we are able to proceed. It would be very exciting to help solve this 400-year old art mystery.