On the Virtues of Domes


[Duomo photo from personal collection, dome photo courtesy of CollegeVibe.]

I had the honor of being asked to give a talk about my engineering interests, my arts background, and the intersection of the two at MIT’s UROP and Scholarship Brunch this year. A video of the talk is below, along with a full transcript below the cut.

† Apologies for the motormouth, I’m working on it.

MIT’s motto, mens et manus, has always resonated very strongly for me. I come from an arts background: I went to an arts magnet high school in Jacksonville, Florida, where I majored in Cinematic Arts. All of my friends were artists, writers, filmmakers, or performers. It might seem like a very big jump to go from being a film student to studying mechanical engineering at MIT, but it doesn’t seem strange to me at all.

Now, to be fair, MIT found a film student trying to go to MIT pretty weird, too. I was rejected the first time I applied to MIT…and the second time. On the third try, after I spent two years in Cambridge working at one of MIT’s neuroscience labs, I finally got in. Some people have told me that was a very brave thing to do, but I think it just means I have the right mindset for an engineer.

A lot of people view art and engineering as two completely different fields, but I’ve never seen the distinction. After all, the arts are about taking an idea and bringing it to fruition, and that’s exactly what engineering is, too. It’s problem solving. And in this situation, there was a problem — I wanted to be at MIT — and I kept going until I solved it.

Some people have asked why I held out to go to MIT, why I didn’t go to a state school or a safety school like Caltech. I held out because I had two priorities: the first was having access to the network of extremely talented people that MIT provides, and access to its world-class reputation. The second, the most important one, was that MIT has a very strong focus on interdisciplinary research and design. MIT recognizes that working across disciplines often allows us to find more innovative solutions than sticking within one box, and that had a strong appeal for me.

My interests are extremely diverse. This semester, I’m the captain of a team building a novel fuel system for an electric vehicle, I’m in a nanoengineering class and a materials science class, and I’m also taking Old English for fun. My technical interests are centered around biomimicry, biomaterials, and manufacturing, while my non-technical interests include Gothic architecture, the history of craftwork like blacksmithing and weaving, and documentary filmmaking. “Interdisciplinary” isn’t just a word for me, it’s a way of life. And I wanted to study somewhere that appreciated the value of the connections between fields as much as I did.

After I started here at MIT, I learned that the distinction between arts, science, and engineering is a relatively modern one. As part of my minor in Ancient and Medieval Studies, I took a class on Renaissance architecture. In that class, I was very surprised to learn that during the Renaissance, arts and engineering, and to some extent science, were considered the same thing. They were all lumped into the same category of “design”.

Anyone who could design something — whether it was a building, a sculpture, hydraulics, or war machines — was lumped under the title of “architect”, and you were considered a poor architect if there was a design challenge you couldn’t step up to, if there was a problem you couldn’t solve. One of the finest examples of this is the architect and engineer Filippo Brunelleschi, who is most famous for constructing the dome of the Duomo in Florence. It’s an astonishing feat of engineering, especially considering that it was built in an era before beam theory or compressive stress were properly understood.

You might expect that Brunelleschi had extensive engineering training, to be able to design a structure so remarkable that modern engineers are still studying it. He was actually trained as a goldsmith, a jeweler. However, in his time, there was no clear distinction between art and engineering — it was all disegno, all design, all problem solving.

So when a design competition was held for the dome of the Duomo, he built a series of scale models to test possible construction methods, found one that would work, and submitted his design for consideration. You can still see some of his prototypes in the museum of the Duomo in Florence today.

I was fortunate enough to be able to see them in person this January, thanks to a travel grant from the Kelly-Douglas fund at MIT. I visited Florence to work on a small documentary project about Renaissance artist-engineers, and was even able to go inside the double-walls of Brunelleschi’s dome and climb to the cupola myself.

I learned many interesting things in my Renaissance architecture class, but Brunelleschi’s dome has always been the most memorable for me. The idea of a goldsmith building this feat of engineering — one so technically challenging that he had to invent the machines to build it, along with entirely new style of brickwork — without any prior experience was utterly foreign to me. It’s like a jeweler entering a NASA competition. It’s just bizarre. So what stuck with me from this class was that Brunelleschi didn’t look at this challenge and say “well, I’m a goldsmith, I can’t design domes.” He started with “all right, I need to build a dome. Let me figure out how to do that.”

In the centuries since Brunelleschi built his dome, art, engineering, and science have become increasingly specialized and fragmented. In many ways this is a good thing; it’s a response to our increasing depth of knowledge in these fields. But it also means that in many places, we’ve lost the idea that all of these fields are different aspects of the same problem-solving. Here at MIT, though, that’s not the case.

One of my summer UROPs really brought this home for me. I worked as a UROP for the Edgerton Center that summer. One of the Edgerton Center’s core principles is an emphasis on STEAM, or “science, technology, arts, and engineering.” I mentored for a program called the Engineering Design Workshop, where high schoolers spend a month working on projects in small teams with guidance and assistance from undergraduate mentors.

The team I was mentoring decided to make an artistic fountain with streams of water lit by LEDs. The “liquid light” effect they wanted was clearest when they used very smooth streams of water, which exhibit unusual refractive properties. We needed to create these extremely smooth streams of water in a very small space, and suddenly this simple high school project became an exercise in fluid engineering. I never expected to need to specialize in fluid dynamics, but I learned more about laminar and turbulent flow that summer than I ever knew there was to learn.

If we had chosen our team’s project by looking at the skillsets of the team members and the mentors and choosing a project that was solidly within our strengths and interests, or a project that fit into a certain category of engineering, we would never have built this liquid light fountain. Instead, we started by choosing something that would be a cool thing to make, and then we figured out how to do it. We studied the relevant theory and built a series of prototypes. While you’re not going to find those prototypes in a museum in Florence, they allowed us to produce a functional liquid light fountain to present at the end of the workshop.

Of all the things I’ve learned at MIT, this emphasis on problem-solving has been the most important. MIT teaches us that when you view the world from this perspective — you’re not looking at the world and saying “I’m a biomaterials engineer” or “I’m a watercolor painter” or “I’m a goldsmith” and starting with an expectation of limitations. Instead, you’re saying, “I have an idea. Let me figure out how to make it.”

When you start with an idea, a concept that you find interesting, and then you figure out how to make it happen — the distinction between art and engineering completely vanishes. Instead of starting with your limitations, with boxes and categories, you start with the knowledge that the entire world is open to you. Art and engineering can both be distilled down to a mix of theory, problem solving, and getting your hands dirty — in short, mens et manus. By focusing not on the individual disciplines but on these core principles of problem solving and discovery, MIT produces extremely adaptable engineers and scientists. While they might prefer one field or discipline over another, if they need to work in a different field, or if there’s an interdisciplinary connection that they want to pursue, they have the resources they need to do that. They can adapt.

What I believed about MIT in high school is completely true: by emphasizing work in the spaces between fields, finding those connections, and stretching outside of what’s easy and safe, we discover far more interesting things and create far more remarkable designs. MIT taught me that I was right to think that a film kid can be a perfectly competent engineer. In my four years at this school, it’s given me a solid foundation in mechanical engineering — but more importantly, it’s given me the experience in problem-solving to know that I can work on any idea that occurs to me.

Will I be building any domes any time soon? Probably not. But from my time here at MIT, I know that if I need to, I can figure it out.