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Chemical Eye on Cathedrals in Science
by Preston MacDougall


December 27, 2004

The Duomo, mitered canal gates and The Last Supper. Those are the three things that most strongly resonate in my memory long after Carlo Gatti, my friend, chemistry collaborator and tour guide all in one, transformed the Italian Renaissance from chapters in art books, and the dash between 1400 and 1600 in history books, into magnificent, moving and colorful reality. You can experience this too, if you go to Milan, in the Lombardy region of northern Italy.

At the behest of then Archbishop of Milan, Antonio da Saluzzo, architectural design of a new gothic cathedral began in 1386. After nearly five-hundred years of hauling and hammering, chiseling an astounding 3,159 marble statues, and grouting countless mosaic tiles, the last of 145 towering spires was completed in 1858. By this time, the Renaissance had come and gone, and older parts of the cathedral, named Duomo, were already being restored.

Commerce in Milan is still facilitated by the first modern canal system there, a watery web that connects supply with demand. Milan's system differed from previous canals in the familiar V-shaped miter gates that held back the higher water. These architectural devices, which still live large along the Panama canal, were designed by Leonoardo da Vinci and were no doubt inspired by his dissection of aortic valves, which hold back the blood being pumped through our hearts.

In addition to this commercial impact, da Vinci's scientific study of the human body also enabled him to paint images of people with uncanny anatomical accuracy. His well-honed architectural drafting skills gave the sense of perspective in his paintings a haunting perfection. This he achieved in one of the more amazing fruits of the Renaissance, which is in fact not far from Il Duomo. It is his five-hundred year-old painting of The Last Supper. He painted it on one wall of a Dominican convent refectory, so that monks would have the sense that Jesus was dining with them. While the other three walls were reduced to rubble during World War II, and eating is no longer permitted in this part of the rebuilt church, the original Renaissance Man continues to make a spiritual impact on visitors today.

The mixing of of art, architecture and cathedrals brings forth an unusual quotation I found in a chemistry magazine. G. N. Lewis is rightly regarded as the grandfather of our modern understanding of the chemical bond. He was recruited to the University of California, Berkeley, in 1912 to be Dean of their College of Chemistry, and so served for the next twenty-nine years. These are his words: "There are ancient cathedrals that, apart from their consecrated purpose, inspire solemnity and awe. Even the curious visitor speaks of serious things, with hushed voice, and as each whisper reverberates through the vaulted nave, the returning echo seems to bear a message of mystery. The labor of generations of architects and artisans has been forgotten, the scaffolding erected for their toil has long since been removed; their mistakes have been erased or have become hidden by the dust of centuries. Seeing only the perfection of the completed whole, we are impressed as by some superhuman agency. But sometimes we enter such an edifice that is still partly under construction; then the sound of hammers, the reek of tobacco, the trivial jests bandied from workman to workman, enable us to realize that these great structures are but the result of giving to ordinary human effort a direction and a purpose.

"Science has its cathedrals, built by the efforts of a few architects and of many workers."

Oak Ridge National Laboratory is currently constructing the Spallation Neutron Source, under the management of physicist Thom Mason. To get a sense of what Professor Lewis was talking about, we could all visit this world class "science cathedral", both as it is being built, and later when scientists from all around the world visit with their chemical samples, on a pilgimage of sorts. Seeking not answers to spiritual questions, but rather material ones. When this facility opens in 2006, it will be one of the world's permier molecular observatories.

The construction of another world-class molecular observatory is the result of a collaboration between CalTech and Stanford, but scientists there will employ X-rays, as opposed to neutrons, in their probing questions. Although the laboratory will be at Stanford, the chemist leading this project is Doug Rees, from CalTech. To justify these costly facilties, he says "if you want to know how something works, you first need to know what it looks like."

While the Oak Ridge project is being funded by the Department of Energy, to the tune of $1.4 billion (neutrons don't come cheaply), the X-ray project is being funded by a $14 million gift from Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel. Coincidentally, the year that Professor Lewis died, 1946, was the year that Dr. Moore started on his bachelor's degree in chemistry at Berkeley. The "law" predicting that computing power would double every eighteen months is named after him. You could call him a modern-day Medici.


Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (


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