The Ongoing NanoRomance with the Lycurgus Cup

To judge by my twitterfeed, facebook timeline, email, newsgroups, etc., there is much excitement about a brief item in the latest Smithsonian Magazine about the ‘nanotechnology’ used by the Romans in regards to the Lycurgus cup. Here’s the incipit:

The colorful secret of a 1,600-year-old Roman chalice at the British Museum is the key to a super­sensitive new technology that might help diagnose human disease or pinpoint biohazards at security checkpoints.

The glass chalice, known as the Lycurgus Cup because it bears a scene involving King Lycurgus of Thrace, appears jade green when lit from the front but blood-red when lit from behind—a property that puzzled scientists for decades after the museum acquired the cup in the 1950s. The mystery wasn’t solved until 1990, when researchers in England scrutinized broken fragments under a microscope and discovered that the Roman artisans were nanotechnology pioneers: They’d impregnated the glass with particles of silver and gold, ground down until they were as small as 50 nanometers in diameter, less than one-thousandth the size of a grain of table salt. The exact mixture of the precious metals suggests the Romans knew what they were doing—“an amazing feat,” says one of the researchers, archaeologist Ian Freestone of University College London.

The ancient nanotech works something like this: When hit with light, electrons belonging to the metal flecks vibrate in ways that alter the color depending on the observer’s position. Gang Logan Liu, an engineer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who has long focused on using nanotechnology to diagnose disease, and his colleagues realized that this effect offered untapped potential. “The Romans knew how to make and use nanoparticles for beautiful art,” Liu says. “We wanted to see if this could have scientific applications.” […]

I’m only including the incipit because — as diligent readers of rogueclassicism probably realize — this story actually came out last February (Them NanoRomans and the Lycurgus Cup). It’s still interesting, but it isn’t really ‘news’. If you’re not familiar with the Lycurgus Cup, the Ancient Art Podcast feature is worth a look:

Ancient Art Podcast | Lycurgus Cup

The blurb:

Raise your glass to the most incredible chalice from antiquity. The Lycurgus Cup in the British Museum is truly exceptional for its exquisite beauty, delicate craftsmanship, magnificent detail, and a seemingly magical ability to transform colors before your very eyes. Discover the myth of the doomed Thracian king, Lycurgus, driven mad by Dionysus and ensnared by the wine god’s creeping vines. Explore the wondrous curiosity of Roman cage cups found in collections across the world, including the Corning Museum of Glass and the Cologne Cup in the Römisch Germanisches Museum

The video: