Luke Farritor is running on three-and-a-half hours of sleep. Listening to him, you’d never know it.
“This is a common thing,” he says between remarking on the surrealist Magritte print adorning a wall and the noise-canceling headphones sitting on a desk, his stream of consciousness revealing the same fondness for humanities and high technology that recently garnered him fame and $40,000. “Don’t worry. I slept a ton this weekend. It’s been relatively calculated, if you can calculate such things.
“But this is what I do. I try to work in very long spurts, because you kind of get in the zone, right?”
The 21-year-old Lincoln native, a senior in the Raikes School at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, dedicated the wee hours of his morning to poring over Python code and Greek letters. The former sustains the machine-learning model that Farritor has built for the sake of deciphering the latter.
Greek letters are not difficult to find at a place like Nebraska U, where sigmas, thetas, deltas, kappas and epsilons grace plenty of signs and even more sweatshirts. But Farritor is busy training his eyes, and his model, on digitized scraps of an ancient document that lends fresh meaning to invisible ink and purple prose. That document — a rolled-up papyrus scroll charred into a lump of carbon by Italy’s Mount Vesuvius, which famously smothered Pompeii and, less famously, nearby Herculaneum in A.D. 79 — had gone unread for nearly two millennia.
Most feared it always would. If Vesuvius has seared that fateful day into history textbooks, it also burned away many of the era’s own texts, leaving the remnants under 60-plus feet of volcanic mud. And it left scant hope that the scroll, or hundreds of others excavated from a Herculaneum library — the last of its kind — would ever yield its words.
Until, in October, Farritor joined Brent Seales and researchers at the University of Kentucky for a news conference that would jar the world, igniting the hope of doubling the readable text from Greco-Roman antiquity.
“If we can do this, and I’m very confident we can,” Farritor said, “this will probably be the largest revelation of text from the ancient world since the Dead Sea Scrolls.”
Before he became a scroll-sleuthing prodigy, Farritor was merely interning with SpaceX in south Texas, where he spent the spring of 2023 writing software for the menagerie of pumps, valves and other components that help fuel gravity-defying rockets. While driving to the office in March, he heard one of his favorite podcasts interviewing one of his professional idols, Nat Friedman, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and former CEO of GitHub. Friedman was talking about funding the Vesuvius Challenge: a $1 million global contest aimed at decoding Herculaneum scrolls that Seales and colleagues had managed, with the help of high-energy X-rays, to digitally image in three dimensions.
“And I’m like, ‘Holy cow! I gotta do this,’” said Farritor, who was putting in 10-hour days at SpaceX. “So that day, I went home, started working in the evenings and on weekends, and never stopped.”
Because many scrolls have been further damaged or even destroyed by attempts to physically unroll them — “It’s really tragic,” Farritor said — the Kentucky team was also digitally unfurling them, periodically sharing new sections of virtually flattened papyrus with the research community. Just one problem: The authors of the scrolls likely wrote in charcoal or soot, so that even the X-rays struggled to distinguish the text from the scorched papyrus.
The Kentucky team had started running exposed, readable segments of other Herculaneum scrolls through machine-learning models — those that learn to recognize and extract telltale patterns from data — and applying them to the scrolls too fragile to be unrolled. Given that the scrolls all came from the same library, the thinking went, some model or another would figure out how to identify and read the Greek letters hiding in the curled, blackened papyrus.
“But it was just garbage,” Farritor said of the results, including his own. “Why on Earth was this? No one really knew. Everyone was really frustrated, and everyone was really worried — like, hey, this might not work at all.”
Then, in June, a breakthrough. Farritor was, aptly enough, scrolling through his social media when he came across a post from Casey Handmer, a former NASA software architect who claimed to have found a letter. Handmer also claimed to have noticed a nuance, using nothing more than his own two eyes, that even the models had apparently missed: a “crackle pattern” that hinted at the presence of ink.
“At first, I was in complete denial,” Farritor said.
He texted Handmer. Hey, you’re not joking, right?
I’m not joking. Just keep looking.
He did. Over the course of many hours, the crackle pattern, like an ancient Magic Eye poster, finally revealed itself to Farritor. He began searching elsewhere in the scroll and spotted it there, too.
“They were always shaped like Greek letters,” he said of the crackles. “I was like, ‘Holy cow! The writing’s in here!’”
Farritor would spend his long Fourth of July weekend the same way, ultimately pinpointing what he believed to be 10 Greek letters scattered about the scroll. He wasted no time turning his attention to the Vesuvius Challenge’s First Letters Prize, a $40,000 reward for the first person to suss out 10 letters within 4 square centimeters of the scroll — an area small enough to potentially decipher a word.
Back in Nebraska, he dedicated the next month to writing a program that could train itself on known crackle patterns, then rely on that training to detect other crackles — hopefully letters — that were invisible to any eye, no matter how magic. It was working. He just needed more scanned, flattened samples of the scroll.
Farritor was at a birthday party in Omaha when it happened. The birthday wasn’t his. He received a gift, anyway.
“This is a rare occurrence for me,” he said of attending the party, where he stayed true to his inner introvert by posting up in a corner, occasionally checking his phone, as music blared and 20-ish people socialized in his vicinity. A text came in. Good news: Another scanned section was up. One that looked rich with crackle, no less. Farritor remotely accessed his computer on the spot, put his model to work on the new fragment, stashed his phone back into his pocket, and eventually drove some friends home.
He was walking out of a parking garage, one friend still in tow, when he felt the itch to fish out his phone again. Staring back at him: three more letters, all in the span of just a few hours.
“And I freak out,” said Farritor, who immediately texted his mother, then some organizers of the Vesuvius Challenge, as his confused friend tried to catch up. “I was screaming.”
He was close now. Sleepless nights would follow as he rushed to refine the model and identify 10 neighboring letters. By early September, confident he’d done it, Farritor submitted his entry. The organizers would review it for authenticity, he knew, before passing it on to several of the world’s foremost Greek scholars, some of them celebrities to Farritor, himself a history nerd.
A few weeks later, another text, this one at 11 p.m.
We have questions about your submission. Can we talk tomorrow?
Farritor, self-assured just a moment before, was now nervous. On the call were Friedman, Seales and several unfamiliar faces.
The thought creeped in: Are they all on this call to let me down gently? Maybe someone else won.
Instead, “They’re like, ‘We have some very serious concerns about your submission.’”
Oh. Oh, no. But then: “‘Just kidding. You won! This is amazing.’”
Those letters, the Greek scholars had determined, actually constituted a word: “porphyras,” Greek for “purple.” As purple dyes were difficult to obtain at the time — among the reasons that robe-donning Roman elites favored the color — the word is a rarity in ancient texts and was previously unseen in any Herculaneum fragment.
Soon, Farritor was on a flight to Lexington, Kentucky, where news of his feat was delivered via press conference and livestream. The media inquiries — a few dozen of them, he estimates — poured in. Well-wishes in the triple digits, too, from every quadrant of his life, every point along the timeline of it.
“Lots of old friends, old bosses, old professors, old teachers. Lots of friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend-of-Mom’s on Facebook, which is nice,” he said, adding that Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, also DM’d him a congrats. “It’s been nuts, and it’s been overwhelming, in the best way possible.”
“The reception has been very positive — far more than I expected,” he said. “I’m surprised … although honestly, it makes sense, because I think this is the moment where we realized it’s possible.”
Farritor returned to his hometown, and the routines of campus life, in late October. Even if he’s not the sort to fall prey to senioritis, his West Coast whirlwind may have cranked up the dial a few notches. Reacclimating to classes and coursework, keeping his eyes on the diploma, has proven tricky at times.
“But Mom and Dad are like, ‘Listen, you’ve got to stay focused on your studies.’ And they’re completely correct.
“I think this scroll stuff is exciting,” he said. “I want to spend all the time I can on it. But I’m finding the right balance, like I have before.”
For some, the money might distract, too. Farritor doesn’t like thinking too much about it. To date, the eldest child of four has spent it on “nothing in particular.” He bought ballet shoes for his sister Sarah, a shirt for Anna, a vintage poster of the concert film “Stop Making Sense” for Matthew. For himself?
“I just go buy books,” he said. “And I now go to Sultan’s Kite every day. It’s so good. I was like, hey, I should treat myself.”
Oh, and some new computer hardware, naturally. Farritor won the First Letters Prize mostly on the strength of a cast-off machine from the lab of his father, Shane, and a hand-me-down GPU. He’s since picked up some computers from university surplus auctions and rented access to higher-powered GPUs in the cloud.
To Farritor, those purchases are not so much luxuries as investments. While he may have secured the First Letters Prize, the Vesuvius Challenge is not over. In fact, its Grand Prize — $700,000 — is still up for grabs. The charge: Isolate four passages of contiguous text, each at least 140 letters long, at least 85% of them legible. The deadline: Dec. 31.
It’s what kept Farritor up till 7 a.m. on a Monday morning. It’s what has him wishing that his dorm’s ethernet exceeded a gigabit per second, what had him leaving his computer at Avery Hall in the hope of accelerating downloads that can take up to 24 hours, what has him installing new hard drives to accommodate scroll scans that can take up to 4 terabytes.
And it’s what has forced him to focus, even or especially when the allure of a shiny new approach turns to a glint in his eye.
“I always have these ideas,” he said, “and there are way more ideas than there is time to implement them.
“So you sit down, and you spend your time reading about these other new ideas you’ve had. But at some point, you’re like, ‘Luke, you need to actually work.’ And then you switch over to working on the less-shiny things, on improving your code: ‘If I change this one little thing, I think I can squeeze out a little bit more performance.’”
He likes his chances of taking the Grand Prize, too. But even if someone beats him to it, Farritor is all-in on the esprit de corps epitomized by Seales and his Kentucky team, who eschewed the usual academic silo in favor of open-source, all-for-one meritocracy.
“There’s this recurring motif of: We just want to read the scrolls,” he said.
No one knows exactly what to expect when they do. Some scholars suspect that the scroll Farritor has devoted so much of 2023 to decoding was authored by Philodemus, a philosopher whose writings have been uncovered in other fragments. There’s also a sense of mystery to the library itself, which resides within the ruins of a massive, multilevel villa, one possibly owned by the father-in-law of Julius Caesar. Much of that villa has yet to be excavated — and potentially hides many more scrolls.
Those already recovered, and any yet to be, might conceal not just philosophical writings but plays, epic poems, histories or scientific treatises. Many were likely never transcribed elsewhere, meaning they were last read nearly 2,000 years ago.
Farritor plans to keep doing his part even after the Vesuvius Challenge, too, is a thing of the past — when he, “just some kid at UNL, Nebraska through and through,” can finally stop calculating his sleep.
“Finding four paragraphs in a scroll, that’s great,” he said. “But we should read the whole scroll. And there are 400 other scrolls. We should read those, too.
“No one thought this would be possible. And now it seems like it is.”