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Shroud of Turin returns to spotlight with new pope, new app, new debate

The age-old debate over the Shroud of Turin is being resurrected this Easter — thanks to the attention of a new pope, the creation of a "Shroud 2.0" app, and a new book that claims the cloth dates back to Jesus' time.

The claim immediately faced a wave of criticism, including a harsh statement from Turin's archbishop that some say has driven a stake into the book's heart.

Believers say the centuries-old shroud bears the imprint of Jesus, chemically captured in the cloth at the time of his resurrection. Skeptics say it's a cleverly done medieval fake, wrapped up in highly debatable scientific claims that just won't die.

The newly published Italian-language book — "Il Mistero Della Sindone," or "The Mystery of the Shroud" — recycles some of those claims, adds in some fresh results from single-fiber tests, and makes the argument that the shroud shows the difficult-to-reproduce image of a man who lived sometime between 280 B.C. and the year 220.

If that's not enough to bring the shroud back into the spotlight, there's also the news that Pope Francis, who was named to lead the Roman Catholic Church just last month, will appear on Italian TV on Holy Saturday to introduce a RAI Uno TV appearance of the shroud. "It will be a message of intense spiritual scope, charged with positivity, which will help (people) never to lose hope," the Italian ANSA news agency quoted Turin Archbishop Cesare Nosiglia as saying.

And then there's Shroud 2.0, a free app for Apple's iPad/iPhone (and soon for Android) that lets users zoom in on high-definition images of the shroud and get factoids about its history. The app is being offered by Haltadefinizione, which took photos of the relic in 2008 and collaborated with church officials on the project. Shroud 2.0 is being offered as an "evangelization tool," according to the Vatican's website.

Scientific links

The Catholic Church has taken no official stand on the authenticity of the shroud, which is kept under lock and key in Turin and is only rarely brought out for public display. But over the years, some researchers have tried to show that the shroud goes back to biblical times rather than to the 14th century.

"The Mystery of the Shroud" is the latest book of this genre. It was written by journalist Saverio Gaeta and Giulio Fanti, an engineering professor at the University of Padua. Fanti is part of a controversial research group that has claimed the image on the cloth couldn't possibly have been created by natural means. The new book refers to those past claims, plus a new angle.

That angle has to do with single fibers that were purportedly vacuumed up from the shroud during scientific testing. Fanti and his colleagues put the fibers through a series of mechanical and chemical tests. "Combining the two chemical methods with the mechanical one, it results [in] a mean date of 33 B.C., with an uncertainty of plus or minus 250 years at 95 percent confidence level, that is compatible with the period in which Jesus Christ lived in Palestine," the publishers say in a news release.

Skeptical views

Fanti's claims drew a quick reaction from Joe Nickell, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry who regularly counters claims from Fanti and other shroud researchers.

"As is typical of a religious rather than scientific agenda, their news was shrewdly released just in time for Easter," Nickell said in a blog posting. "That alone casts doubt on the claims, but there is more."

Nickell pointed out that Fanti's tests "involve three different procedures — each with its own problems — which are then averaged together to produce the result." He said that stands in contrast with 1988's mass spectrometry tests, which yielded a date range between 1260 and 1390. Fanti says those earlier tests were not "statistically reliable," but Nickell and most scientists are sticking with the verdict rendered in 1988.

As a professional skeptic, Nickell can be expected to voice doubt about the book. But criticism also came from Archbishop Nosiglia.

Because there's "no degree of security" as to the authenticity of the fiber samples, the shroud's custodians "cannot recognize any serious value to the results of these alleged experiments," Nosiglia said in a statement quoted by La Stampa's Vatican Insider. The archbishop's comments "put stakes into Fanti's work," Vatican Insider reported.

Somehow I suspect that shroud science is not truly dead, but what do you think? Feel free to weigh in with your own verdict in the comment section below.

More about science and the shroud:

Alan Boyle is's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.