Computers help researchers find literary odd socks

Researchers are using the latest computer technology to reassemble more than 100,000 document fragments collected across 1,000 years.

According to the New York Times, the manuscripts, which reveal details of Jewish life along the Mediterranean, including marriage, medicine and mysticism in bits. They are a bit like hundreds of jigsaw puzzles which have been thrown in a single bag with no corner pieces. Another similar situation is found in the common sock drawer.

Dubbed the Cairo genizah, the papers include works by the rabbinical scholar Maimonides who wrote the “Guide for the Perplexed” classic, Torah scrolls and prayer books, reams of poetry and letters, contracts, and court documents, and recipes.

Now Israeli scholars are using a sophisticated artificial intelligence program running on a powerful computer network, which is conducting 4.5 trillion calculations per second, to piece together the papers.

Roni Shweka said that in an hour the computer can compare 10 million pairs – which is more than a human being can do in a lifetime.

Recovered in 1896 from a storeroom of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Old Cairo,  the 320,000 pages and parts of pages in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Judeo-Arabic were not in a good state.   After they were found they were scattered in 67 libraries and private collections around the world.

So far only 4,000 fragments have been pieced together through a painstaking, expensive, exclusive process that relied a lot on luck.

The latest experiment involves more than 100 linked servers located in a basement at Tel Aviv University. The software analyses 500 visual cues for each of 157,514 fragments, to check a total of 12,405,251,341 possible pairings. The process began 16 May and should be done around 25 June.