Science on the Bed of Notre-Dame

Martín Regert is the Project Manager for CNRS operating the Scientific Site of Notre-Dame de Paris. Three years after the horrific fire, we asked him what research was being done about the cathedral.


The Conversation: How has the scientific community mobilized?

Martin Riegert: The scientists, like many in France and around the world, have been greatly affected, with some having witnessed the tragedy as many research laboratories are geographically close to the cathedral. We understood very quickly that scientific knowledge would be necessary to support the restoration process. It was also necessary to avoid loss of knowledge. For example, anything that had fallen to the ground (stone, wood, metal, etc.) might be considered debris, while scientists saw them more as heritage relics and study material. The next day, the Union of Scientists was created in service of the restoration of Notre-Dame de Paris.

At that time, I was the Deputy Scientific Director at the CNRS Institute for Ecology and Environment, and the next day I was at the organization’s headquarters. Telephones were ringing with colleagues who were already proposing research avenues, for example to reach temperatures during fires or to study the state of burned structures.

In the face of these many initiatives, we have formed working groups with the Ministry of Culture. Together with Philippe Dillmann, I was appointed in May 2019 to operate the Scientific Site of Notre-Dame de Paris, Project Manager for CNRS, as well as Pascal Livaux and Aline Magnien for the Ministry of Culture.

TC: How do scientists participate in the restoration?

Mister: I can give you some examples. One of our working groups is interested in structures and the forces that apply to them. This group was asked by the project management (chief architect of the historical monuments) to conduct a post-fire structural evaluation of the vaults to assess their stability status.

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We also have a group that is interested in the acoustics of the work and who will participate in choosing the placement of a new organ in the choir.

Other scientists are interested in stained glass, the real wonders of fire. They want to determine their manufacturing history and solutions to purify them (lead) before replacing them.

TC: Other long-term studies are in progress…

Mister: Yes, for example, research is being done to place the cathedral in its environmental context.

The frames are definitely burned out, but not completely, there is still a lot of information in the wood that could be used. By studying the rings that form as trees grow, we can date them, for some, to the nearest year. Sometimes it is also possible to specify the season of slaughter. On the other hand, these tree rings record the climatic and environmental conditions in which forests have developed. Particularly interesting is what we call the medieval climate optimum at the time the cathedral was built: a significant warming document between XAnd and fourteenthAnd century AD and before the Little Ice Age.

This period constitutes an interesting point of comparison in the context of the global warming that we are currently experiencing in terms of the causes, amplitude and stakes of the observed phenomena.

On an entirely different topic, we have anthropological collaborators who work on the sentiments associated with disasters affecting cultural assets, such as the fire at the Rio Museum of Anthropology in 2018 or the Shuri Castle fire in Japan, located near Notre. Immediately after was – Dame de Paris. They try to understand how everyone reacted. They also document the feelings of all those working directly or indirectly in the restoration.

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TC: How do scientists work at a site that is undergoing restoration?

Mister: It’s going well enough, but it’s complicated. From the point of view of many already existing scientific disciplines, which do not necessarily all have the same way of working: chemists, physicists, historians, archaeologists… we do not have the same time constraints. Then we work on a symbolic monument. So there is a very strong expectation from the political authorities and the public.

On site, working conditions are tough: everyone has to respect a very precise schedule, so you have to be very skilled. In addition, there are several security barriers. As is well known, this place is heavily contaminated with lead, so you will have to work with a mask, wear a protective suit, etc.

Fortunately, it is all well coordinated, and we manage to work efficiently and enthusiastically, because the stakes are very exciting.

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