Over the past two and a half years, Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Sciences (CPNAS) has developed an iPad app that allows visitors to the National Academy of Sciences Building to learn more about the history of science by exploring the iconography of the Great Hall Dome, the focal point of the building. CPNAS engaged Lee Boot and his team at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Imaging Research Center along with several science historians to bring the project to fruition. Since April, visitors to the building have been able to check out an iPad with the app preloaded from the security guard at the front desk. A website based on the app is currently in development. You can download the NAS Dome Explorer app on your iPad.
On Wednesday, June 26, you will meet
Lee Boot is an experimental media artist and researcher exploring new ways to represent knowledge in human environments. He is Associate Research Scholar and Associate Director at the Imaging Research Center (IRC) at University of Maryland Baltimore County. He oversaw the IRC’s development of the NAS Dome Explorer App.
JD Talasek is director of CPNAS. CPNAS organizes exhibitions, lectures, concerts, theatrical readings, and other programs exploring relationships among art, science, and culture. He co-directed the NAS Dome Explorer App project with Lee Boot. He is also an adjunct professor in the Master of Arts in Museum Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University.
Alana Quinn is senior program associate of CPNAS. Alana contributed to the text of the NAS Dome Explorer and is now focused on marketing the app. Visit CPNAS’ website www.cpnas.org.
Tom Burnett is a communications associate in the Office of Communications at the National Academy of Sciences. Formerly a Mirzayan Fellow with CPNAS, Tom contributed to the text about the icons in the app. He conducted much of his initial research in the NAS Archives.
History of the National Academy of Sciences and the NAS Building
Chartered by Congress in 1863, the National Academy of Sciences did not have its own home until April 1924, when the National Academy of Sciences / National Research Council Building was dedicated at 2101 Constitution Avenue NW in Washington, D.C. Astrophysicist George Ellery Hale, an Academy member and officer, was the force behind the drive to build a headquarters for the Academy. American architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue was selected to design the building. Goodhue believed the design of a “modern and scientific building” could be accomplished through artistic embellishment and he wanted all decoration in the NAS building to celebrate the history and significance of science.
The building’s central feature is the Great Hall with a dome rising to a height of 56 feet. The decoration of the dome, arches, and pendentives of the Great Hall, designed by artist Hildreth Meière, epitomize scientific themes and the history of science as it was known in 1924.
The Great Hall Dome
At the center of the dome is a stylized sun ringed by a circular band containing symbols of the eight planets. Between the sun and the ring of planets is the inscription: “Ages and cycles of nature in ceaseless sequence moving.” Radiating outward from the center of the dome are eight panels, each representing a scientific discipline. At the base of each panel are two smaller medallions depicting objects, tools, or ideas emblematic of the discipline. Scientific disciplines have changed a great deal over time. Those depicted here are a window into an important and formative time for science, engineering, and medicine. They exist between the traditional way we historically organized knowledge and our contemporary map of many disciplines not depicted. A second inscription encircles the dome at its rim: “To science, pilot of industry, conqueror of disease, multiplier of the harvest, explorer of the universe, revealer of nature’s laws, eternal guide to truth.”
The dome is supported by four pendentives (the triangular section of vaulting between the dome and the arches), each decorated with figures representing the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water) and three small medallions representing inventions related to each element. The four elements appeared as the fundamental building blocks of nature in the earliest recorded attempts to understand the cosmos. They were thought to have natural places and motions, with heavy earth and water tending vertically toward the center of the spherical cosmos and light air and fire rising above. In various combinations, they were believed to comprise all of the objects of physical reality. Only in the past two centuries have these ideas given way to our modern concepts of elements.
The four soffit arches feature interpretations of the insignia of four of the world’s oldest academies of science and two examples of their achievements. The Accademia dei Lincei, Rome, founded in 1603, is depicted on the east arch with the lynx and the crown and with its achievements represented by Volta’s electric pile and Galileo’s telescope. The Academie des Sciences, Paris, founded in 1666, is depicted with a helmeted Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom, and its achievements represented by Daguerre’s camera and a flask symbolizing Lavoisier’s experiments in chemistry. The Royal Society of London, founded in 1660, is depicted on the west arch with three lions, based on the royal arms of England from medieval times, and its achievements represented by Newton’s prism and Watt’s steam engine. On the north arch is a representation of the ancient Museum of Alexandria, said to have been an assembly of scientific and literary scholars similar to a modern-day university.
Beyond the Dome
Other artists were engaged in addition to Hildreth Meière. On the Great Hall’s north wall a painting by Albert Herter represents Prometheus, aided by Athena, stealing the divine fire from the sun god Helios, to bring mankind the flame of knowledge. Beneath the painting, a quotation from Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound recites the benefits conferred on the world by science. Beneath the painting, framing the doorway that leads to the auditorium, are pilasters topped by Lee Lawrie’s sculpted figures symbolizing darkness and light. Lawrie’s bronze work is represented in the gates on the south wall opposite of the Prometheus mural.
–Alana Quinn, CPNAS