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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Searching for Genghis Khan
By Doug Ramsey

Materials scientist Albert Yu-Min Lin, Marshall '04, M.S. '06, Ph.D. '08, has just been named the world's top adventurer by readers of National Geographic Adventure magazine for his expeditions in search of Genghis Khan's tomb.

"The idea to search for the tomb of Genghis Khan occurred to me while traveling with friends in Mongolia; I came back dreaming of doing something that everyone thought was impossible."

It’s not often that a materials scientist by training is labeled the world’s top adventurer. But that’s the honor bestowed on UC San Diego alumnus Albert Yu-Min Lin by the readers of National Geographic Adventure magazine.

After nominating Lin and nine other adventurers in its December 2009/January 2010 issue, National Geographic Adventure opened online voting for the first Readers’ Choice Adventurer of the Year. In late February, the publication ­announced that Lin’s search for the lost tomb of Genghis Khan won him the top honor in a tie with Iraq War veteran Marc Hoffmeister, who led a team of soldiers—many of them amputees—up the dangerous West Buttress route on Denali in the Himalayas.

For Lin, the journey began when he was still an undergraduate at the Jacobs School of Engineering. During a trip to Mongolia, he became fascinated with Genghis Khan. Genghis, who lived in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, had unified the Mongolian tribes in 1204 and, by 1219, ruled from the Afghan border to Siberia, and from northern China to the border of Tibet. And yet, for all the power and influence he wielded during his life, a deep mystery surrounds his death and burial. His tomb has never been found.

“The idea to search for the tomb of Genghis Khan occurred to me while traveling with friends in Mongolia; I came back dreaming of doing something that everyone thought was impossible,” says Lin, who has become steeped in Mongolian culture, and was even adopted into a Mongolian family in 2006.

But, on the advice of his mother, a former Hong Kong movie star, and his father, an astrophysicist, he put the search for Genghis on hold while he completed his Master’s and Ph.D. in materials science. During his four years as a Powell Lee Fellow, he published 11 journal papers and some of his research is reported on page 11.

Lin took another trip to Mongolia after finishing his dissertation in 2008, and became hooked on the idea of using his know-how to do what previous expeditions to Mongolia failed to do: pinpoint the nearly 800-year-old burial site of the conqueror.

Returning to San Diego, Lin worked part-time in the UCSD division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Tech­nology (Calit2). There he became familiar with the latest non-destructive imaging technologies that a pioneer in the field and fellow UCSD alumnus, Maurizio Seracini, Revelle ’73, was using to study paintings, historic buildings and other cultural artifacts. The previous year, Seracini had moved back to San Diego to direct a new Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3), a partnership of Calit2, the Jacobs School, and UCSD’s Division of Arts & Humanities.

“Around the time I first met Maurizio, I was beginning to feel that there was a disconnect between my technical abilities and my passion for cultural heritage,” recalls Lin. “I was invigorated by his vision of a new field of science, so I started offering my services to CISA3 as a materials scientist and was able to do materials and spectral analysis of brick pigmentation for projects like Maurizio’s search for a lost Leonardo da Vinci mural in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio.”

Seracini introduced Lin to a revolution in ­exploration using multispectral imaging and non-destructive techniques to look below the surface of a painting or pinpoint hidden ruins. Satellite imaging, ground-penetrating radar and other non-invasive imaging techniques became key ­addi­tions to the explorer’s toolkit.

Seracini had been named a National Geo­graphic Fellow in 2007 and, since then, National Geographic had expanded its partnership with CISA3 with grants to three other CISA3 researchers: archaeology professor Tom Levy; computer science graduate student Kyle Knabb, Warren ’05 (who works with Levy); and Lin.

Under CISA3’s auspices, Lin launched the “Valley of the Khans” project, initially using satellite maps supplied by the GeoEye Foundation to search for tell-tale signs of Genghis Khan’s resting place. With a grant from the National Geographic/Waitt Family Foundation program, Lin and his team of engineers, geologists, historians and archaeologists—including National Geographic’s only resident archaeologist, Fred Hiebert—undertook an expedition last summer to Mongolia where they
deployed an unmanned aerial vehicle to scan areas that appeared as potential man-made anomalies based on Lin’s analysis of the satellite images.

This March, National Geographic and UC San Diego signed a research collaboration agreement under which the two institutions established a program to develop remote imaging and other ­research tools for exploration. Albert Lin took the lead in developing the program at UCSD, which focuses heavily on involving students.

“National Geographic has been involved in developing remote imaging technology for research and exploration for many years,” says Terry Garcia, National Geographic’s executive vice president for Mission Programs. “Once we saw the amazing depth of knowledge among UCSD researchers we are funding, we recognized that by giving students the opportunity to collaborate with National Geographic staff on solving real-world engineering problems, it could be a win-win situation.”

The campus approved the creation of a UCSD-National Geographic Engineers in Exploration Society. Honors-level senior undergrads and graduate students can participate in the society starting this spring. Students interested in earning credit for independent study or undergraduate engineering design coursework can apply to participate in one of the inaugural projects jointly approved by UCSD and National Geographic, which is providing core funding for the program. Selected students will then be assigned to teams supervised by a faculty advisor and, who knows, perhaps be ­inspired to one day lead their own expeditions.

Meanwhile, Lin prepares to leave on his second expedition to Mongolia in mid-June. “Non-invasive imaging tools have become so portable and powerful that we should be able to pinpoint underground structures,” concludes the UCSD alum. “We don’t need a shovel to identify a burial site, especially one the size of what we believe would have surrounded Genghis Khan’s grave. This is new technology that will allow us to preserve the past while also giving the world images and computer models that eliminate the need to dig up ruins.

“Our long-term goal is to set up some protection mechanism to preserve the cultural heritage of Mongolia, which has had a huge impact on the rest of the world,” explains Lin. “The Mongols basically created a lot of what we know of as our modern history, and that story really hasn’t been told completely.”

For more information on his expedition go to: valleyofthekhans.org and adventure.national geographic.com.

Doug Ramsey is director of communications for Calit2 at UC San Diego.