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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 9, 2008

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


A Dome, Your Inner Fish, and Idol Whiners

It's nice to know the readers of the Rhino are looking out for me. Wendell Putney wrote to tell me that instead of fighting with Claritin's insane, human-proof packaging, I should get my doctor to prescribe the generic Loratadine 10 mg. It comes in a standard bottle and it's "on the $4 list of generic drugs available at WalMart or Target."

I can live with that!

*

I enjoy finding little "niche histories" -- brief books that look at a particular person or event or achievement in history but deal with them exhaustively.

Sometimes, the authors pick a subject so scanty that they have to pad mercilessly in order to fill out even a thin volume.

But Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture, by Ross King, is a jewel of a book.

In part, it's a biography, and a fascinating one. Brunelleschi was an architect in an age when architecture wasn't quite treated like an art. Rather it was a set of problems -- and the guilds of Florence treated each problem as a separate contest, forcing artists and architects to compete with each other over and over again to win the contract to build each part of the building and each machine required to build it.

The problem with the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore was that when it was originally designed and laid out, no one had the faintest idea how to actually build a dome as huge as the one specified.

It was something of an act of faith. As if they said to each other, This will be the biggest and best cathedral anywhere, and by the time we're ready to build the dome, God will provide someone who can figure out how to do it.

And God did provide -- Filippo Brunelleschi [fee-LEEP-po bru-nel-LESS-key], a private, pig-headed man who disdained to work in cooperation with anybody. Either he was in charge or he wasn't. And in that era, such arrogance was not appreciated.

Of course, people would have appreciated it even less if the building fell down while under construction, or at the first earthquake after it was built. Brunelleschi's chief rival -- for his entire life -- was Lorenzo Ghiberti, a brilliant artist whose baptistery doors are still a tourist (and art student) destination in Florence. But Ghiberti was never Brunelleschi's match as an architect or designer of machines.

If Ghiberti had only recognized this and concentrated on what he was good at, Brunelleschi's life would have been easier (and both men would have been much happier, no doubt). But Ghiberti took each contest as a death match, and when time after time the contest went to Brunelleschi, Ghiberti could not forgive.

It didn't help that Ghiberti was named "co-architect" on the project -- and then was treated with complete disdain by Brunelleschi and all the artisans. Ghiberti simply didn't know anything about what was to be done, and Brunelleschi, true to form, wasn't interested in letting Ghiberti in on the secrets of construction.

Brunelleschi knew that anything he shared with Ghiberti would quickly be claimed as Ghiberti's own invention and would be stolen and copied all over Italy. Ghiberti was a highly social self-promoter -- and in his one-sided feud with Brunelleschi, he even stooped (or so it seems) to maneuverings so low that he got Brunelleschi thrown into prison for not paying dues to a guild that nobody ever paid dues to!

Their personal struggle, though, is almost trivial compared to the enormous challenges Brunelleschi faced in building the largest dome in history.

Yes, larger than the U.S. Capitol dome. Larger than any dome ever built. And he was required to build it without flying buttresses to help distribute the weight, and without building internal scaffolding to support the dome while it was under construction.

He achieved it by the use of stone-and-iron "chains" to bind the structure together so it didn't fall outward, and by creating wooden cranes and elevators that could raise massive stones to astonishing heights and maneuver them into place.

Meanwhile, he provided for the safety of the workers -- though they still required nerves of steel to work at such heights, dangling over the floor of the church.

The sad thing is that even though Brunelleschi's dome remains the largest ever made out of natural materials, when you actually visit the place it doesn't look like much -- not from the outside.

I saw it when I was in Florence, but I had to be told that it was something worth seeing, and in truth I still wasn't that impressed. The problem is that it is in proportion to the cathedral it part of, so that until you realize that the building itself is astonishingly large, the dome looks a bit smallish.

Moreover, the dome is not perfectly round, but rather octagonal. The ridges that mark the eight ribs of the dome are not so much structural as decorative, but our modern eyes are used to seeing such protrusions as the "bones" on which everything else hangs.

If the dome were perfectly round, it would look, from the outside, like more of a marvel.

It took this book for me to realize that the ridges are irrelevant and the task was one of the finest achievements in the history of architecture.

The book is extraordinarily well written, with its combination of life-and-times and architectural explanations.

Don't misunderstand -- sometimes it's tough sledding, if only because most of the diagrams are too authentic.

That is, the text does a pretty good job of explaining how a particular machine worked, but then the diagram or illustration created by an artist of the period is often so completely unrelated to what King wrote (or, indeed, to anything that makes mechanical sense at all) that I'm left baffled.

By the end, what most amused me was how petty and ordinary were the lives of these great artists. It's easy to ascribe godlike virtues to the "geniuses" of the past -- and in my opinion Brunelleschi's actual achievements as an inventor far outstrip those of da Vinci.

In fact, one of Brunelleschi's machines was long ascribed to da Vinci because there was a drawing of it in da Vinci's notebooks. But da Vinci had merely visited Florence and sketched what Brunelleschi had already built!

*

A much more easily-read book is Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body.

In fact, Shubin often talks down to his audience a bit. It's clear that he thinks he's writing to people who know almost nothing of anatomy or evolution; and that's a good thing!

But his jokes, alas, are the kind of lame humor that gets laughs from students because they're so desperately grateful for anything to break the monotony of the lecture.

Never mind all that. Because this book is an introductory course in the persistence of forms through the process of evolution, and it's written by a working scientist who has made important original contributions to science.

If you are adamantly opposed to the idea of evolution, then you really must avoid this book. It makes the fact of evolution so obvious and clear that the only way you can continue to disbelieve it is to assert that God is such a trickster he went to a lot of trouble to provide us with overwhelming evidence of evolution.

(The book does not, however, address the process of evolution, which to my mind is the real battleground between fanatical Darwinists and equally fanatical intelligent-design creationists. My personal opinion is they are all a bunch of clowns, claiming to know more on both sides of the issue than the evidence can possibly justify -- and then insisting that the schools be forced to teach their unprovable doctrines.)

Whether you see this book as an exploration of the workings of blind nature or as a celebration of the creations of a benevolent God is of no concern to me. What the book does is show you, in detail, how embryonic and fetal development, DNA, and mature body structures all reveal our intimate kinship with the first air-breathing fish to turn fins into the four limbs of all land-dwelling vertebrates.

That it's easy to read and contains cool stories about how you go about doing this kind of science is a bonus.

*

To the people who have declared that Danny Noriega's getting dropped from American Idol is proof that Americans are "still homophobic," I must point out a few things:

1. As far as we know, Noriega isn't gay, he's just effeminate. Are you saying that we should assume all effeminate men are gay? Isn't that stereotyping?

2. Americans didn't vote against him, they merely neglected to vote for him. Was it our duty to vote for him because he's (as you assume) gay, whether we preferred other singers or not?

3. There is another contestant whose "credentials" as a homosexual are at least as good as Noriega's, and the "scandal" about him (working as a stripper in a club with a mostly-male clientele) was widely known before the voting -- and that contestant made it through into the final twelve.

4. Personality plays a large role in the voting. Isn't it possible that people detested Noriega, not because he was effeminate, but because he was obnoxiously snotty whenever he spoke?

5. Isn't it just possible that Americans cast their votes for the singers whose vocals and performance they liked best? If so, then doesn't ascribing evil motives to the audience because they didn't vote for every member of various PC-designated victim groups show a lot more about your bigotry than theirs?


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