Scientists embrace a cathedral’s rebirth

The day that Notre Dame burned, we here at Science News watched the live coverage of flames raging into the clear April sky. Like so many other people around the world, we were heartsick. It was hard to imagine that the beloved 850-year-old cathedral could survive such a massive conflagration. 

But Notre Dame somehow endured. And within days, scientists were springing into action, eager to offer their knowledge to ensure the cathedral’s revival. One of them was Brian Katz, a physicist living in Paris who had studied Notre Dame’s unique sound. When Science News physics writer Emily Conover learned about Katz’s work a few weeks after the fire, she knew that this was a story she wanted to tell.

Conover called Katz, and learned that he had recorded Notre Dame’s acoustic properties in 2013 and had built a virtual reality evocation of the cathedral’s unique sound. With the fortuitous data in hand, Katz started talking with other scientists about how to restore it. Heritage acoustics is “a whole field I’d never heard of,” says Conover, who holds a Ph.D. in particle physics. The field melds a physicist’s understanding of the properties of sound waves with how ears and brains process sound, and how people use a space like Notre Dame, packing it full of tapestries and statues and congregants.

To report the story, Conover flew to Paris in September, where she met Katz and his colleague Mylène Pardoen of CNRS, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. Conover experienced some of their virtual reality reconstructions and went with them to another Paris church that Katz had studied. In the course of her reporting, Conover also interviewed scientists in other disciplines who have joined the international effort to rebuild the cathedral. Some of them plan to do research that wasn’t possible when the building was intact. That includes looking for clues about past climate trends in charred timbers from the roof’s iconic “forest” and analyzing the fire’s effect on metalwork used to bind the timbers.

While in Paris, Conover made her way to Île de la Cité, the ancient heart of the city, and stood outside the crippled cathedral. The area was a construction site, with scaffolding and a large crane hoisting materials aloft. But the grief that had gripped hearts worldwide persisted. “It was somber,” Conover says.

The French government has pledged to rebuild the cathedral, and many scientists will be involved in that process. The tragedy of what has been lost will endure, but the scientists’ work is already bringing the prospect of enlightenment and rebirth.

In this issue, we also report news from two major scientific meetings, held by the American Geophysical Union and by the American Society for Cell Biology and the European Molecular Biology Organization. By sending journalists to meetings like these, we’re able to keep you up to speed on the latest findings and scientists’ responses to them; those discussions are an integral part of the process of science. Covering meetings requires a big investment of time and money, but we think it’s worth it. We hope you do, too.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.