Taking the Prize
February 5, 2024 12:28 PM   Subscribe

The Vesuvius Challenge Grand Prize has been awarded to a team that joined forces after their earlier successes. The team provided about 5% of the first scroll, which looks to be part of an Epicurean work. The organizers also announced the 2024 goal: 90% of the first four scrolls scanned and segmented!
posted by bbrown (19 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
The promise here is stupendous. We could recover so many lost texts! It’s a good time to be a Classicist. It’s a good time to be alive. :-)
posted by Don.Kinsayder at 12:53 PM on February 5 [14 favorites]

If they find the second volume of Aristotle's Poetics on the nature of humor and laughter, better not tell the Benedictine monk Jorge of Burgos about it, if they know what's good for them [Name of the Rose joke].
Seriously, though, this is amazingly cool and even better results than I had hoped for.
posted by indexy at 1:00 PM on February 5 [7 favorites]

It’s fantastic news. Always impressed that we can still claw literature back from the cold hands of the past.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:01 PM on February 5

This truly blows my mind.
posted by deadbilly at 1:02 PM on February 5

This is absolutely wonderful! Such a fantastic project, such a wonderful approach, such excellent, clear explanations, such a delightful FAQ.

The approach especially makes me happy:
With the Vesuvius Challenge, we hope not only to solve the problem of reading the Herculaneum Papyri, but also to inspire similar projects. For that, it’s helpful to know what has contributed to our success in 2023. Here are some things we believe were important:
3. Blending competition and cooperation. A Grand Prize on its own would suffer from information “hoarding”: no one would share their intermediate work, because others could take it and use it to beat them to the finish line. Without information sharing, the probability of a single team solving all the puzzle pieces to win the Grand Prize would be dramatically lower.

Instead, we blended competition and cooperation by adding “progress prizes” along the way. These were smaller prizes (often in the $1,000-10,000 range) every ~2 months. To win a progress prize, you had to publish your code or research as open source, thereby benefiting the entire community.

Besides “leveling up” the entire community, this had several side benefits. We generated buzz and excitement in the community, which was motivating for everyone. It allowed winners to re-invest their winnings into better equipment, compute time, or even reduced hours at work or study to dedicate more to the competition. And it allowed people to find each other and form teams — like we saw with the Grand Prize winners.
Also, excellent use of a photo of a waffle in the FAQ.

This is both inspiring and awe-inspiring.

Thank you so much for posting this, bbrown - I am so glad to know about this, and looking forward to sharing it with friends!
posted by kristi at 1:07 PM on February 5 [13 favorites]

Reminds me of that Asimov short story about the historian dying to use chronoscope to go back to re-live ancient Carthage, and in doing so inadvertently triggering the obvious-in-retrospect negative effect for present-day people.
posted by torokunai at 1:20 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]

We could recover so many lost texts!

Fingers crossed for Catullus' lost dirtiest poems!

As a note about my lovely wife, her email signature when we met was a very obscene declarative from Catallus in Latin. My father is a classicist, and after receiving his first email from her replied, "You're doing WHAT to my face?"
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 1:49 PM on February 5 [11 favorites]

If anything I feel like the announcement underplays just how exciting this is for the study of ancient Greek and Roman literature. For centuries, Greek and Roman literature has been a "closed corpus" meaning scholars had found and catalogued basically everything that still existed in readable form. The last really significant discovery was of the full text of Aristotle's Athenian Constitution in 1890. So with these 2,000 characters or so we're already talking about one of the largest and most exciting new finds in decades, possibly a century. But there's no reason these techniques can't keep getting better and keep being applied to more scrolls, from the 4 already scanned, to the hundreds already unearthed, to possibly thousands still buried in the unexcavated portions of the villa.

It's not an exaggeration to say, as Bret Deveraux did in his Patreon newsletter today, that this could easily be the beginning of an era of rediscovery of lost Classical texts that is bigger than anything we've seen since the Renaissance.
posted by firechicago at 1:54 PM on February 5 [13 favorites]

Moreover, given the known typos and "enhancements" done to the original texts over the centuries by monks and other transcribers, this could even change the "closed corpus" parts.
posted by bbrown at 2:12 PM on February 5 [3 favorites]

Also, Bloomberg has a more accessible version if you'd prefer.
posted by bbrown at 3:34 PM on February 5

Because someone has to do it: BE SURE TO DRINK YOUR OVALTINE.
posted by Naberius at 5:05 PM on February 5 [4 favorites]

that this could easily be the beginning of an era of rediscovery of lost Classical texts that is bigger than anything we've seen since the Renaissance.

…and we didn’t even need to sack Constantinople this time!
posted by leotrotsky at 5:09 PM on February 5 [3 favorites]

This is beyond cool and very exciting!
posted by fruitslinger at 7:46 PM on February 5

Screw hoverboards and jetpacks, this is definitely one of the best surprise tech breakthroughs living in the recent future has turned out.

I too am massively excited for what comes next with these scrolls, but I also think it's even more important that the way this was done (as highlighted above by kristi) gets praised and shouted about as far and wide as possible.

The open source competitive collaboration model could be applied to so many other problems that don't have the profile to secure major one-shot project funding. Combined with the boost open source AI had last year with Llama, Falcon et al (a bit more under the radar than ChatGPT hype / angst) I really hope we'll start to see more of this sort of approach in all sorts of other fields.
posted by protorp at 2:55 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]

Meanwhile, I have a bunch of CD-RWs that are likely unreadable.
posted by tommasz at 5:27 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]

Meanwhile, I have a bunch of CD-RWs that are likely unreadable.

Unreadable FOR NOW.
posted by DigDoug at 9:56 AM on February 6

For centuries, Greek and Roman literature has been a "closed corpus" meaning scholars had found and catalogued basically everything that still existed in readable form.

There has also been a steady stream of papyri from Egypt. Most of these are fragmentary, what is not fragmentary is mostly administrative, and what is not administrative is mostly copies of works we already had, but nonetheless parts of Hypsipyle by Euripedes were found in 1905, substantial parts of Ichneutae ("The Trackers") by Sophocles were found in 1912 and nearly all of Dyskolos ("The Misanthrope") by Menander was found in 1952.
posted by cyanistes at 10:57 AM on February 6

On the finite corpus, I've just finished The Naming of Names The Search for Order in the World of Plants (2005; 400pp) by Anna Pavord. Pavord's thesis is that Theophrastus [huzzah!] of Lesbos (~371 – ~287 BCE), polymath and successor to Aristotle (384–322 BCE) was the greatest and best of botanists from the classical times but all his original works slipped between the cracks of Dark Age sack and pillage. Chunks of his Enquiry into Plants [companion to Aristotle's much better known Enquiry into Animals] were dug up in the Vatican archives and both were translated into Latin by Theodoro of Gaza between 1450 and 1480. Going back to The Source, showed what sorry show of mindless, error-frittered, copying had been carried out by Pliny (23-79 CE) and Dioscorides (b. ~40 CE).

Still hoping for shopping lists and butler's inventories in these scrolls though.
posted by BobTheScientist at 1:30 PM on February 6

I can't stand the guy, but Elon Musk said that the Musk Foundation will support this project. Their needs are so reasonable and paltry that this could go a long way towards accomplishing their aims.
posted by bbrown at 11:37 AM on February 8

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