Science at the bedside of Notre-Dame

Martine Regert is project manager for the CNRS for steering the scientific site of Notre-Dame de Paris. Three years after the terrible fire, we asked him what research was being carried out in connection with the cathedral.


The Conversation: How has the scientific community mobilized?

Martine Regert: Scientists, like many people in France and around the world, have been very affected, some have witnessed the tragedy since many research laboratories are geographically close to the cathedral. We understood very quickly that scientific knowledge was going to be necessary to support the restoration process. It was also necessary to avoid the loss of knowledge. For example, everything that had fallen to the ground (stones, wood, metals, etc.) could be considered as rubble, whereas scientists saw them more as heritage vestiges and as study materials. The next day, the Association of Scientists in the Service of the Restoration of Notre-Dame de Paris was created.

At that time, I was deputy scientific director at the CNRS ecology and environment institute and the next day I was at the headquarters of this organization. The telephones rang a lot with colleagues who were already proposing avenues of research, for example to model the temperatures reached during the fire or to study the state of the charred structures.

Faced with these numerous initiatives, we have set up working groups with the Ministry of Culture. With Philippe Dillmann, I was appointed project manager for the CNRS, as well as with Pascal Liévaux and Aline Magnien for the Ministry of Culture, for steering the scientific site of Notre-Dame de Paris in May 2019.

TC: How do scientists participate in restoration?

MR: 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 (the chief architects of historic monuments) to conduct a post-fire structural assessment of the vaults in order to assess their stability conditions.

We also have a group which is interested in the acoustics of the work and which will take part in choosing the placement of a new organ in the choir.

Other scientists are interested in stained glass, the real miracles of the fire. They seek to determine the history of their manufacture and solutions to decontaminate them (lead) before replacing them.

TC: Other longer-term studies are in progress…

MR: Yes, for example, research is being carried out to place the cathedral in its environmental context.

The frames have certainly burned, but not completely, the wood still contains a lot of information that can be used. We can date them, for some, to the nearest year by studying the rings formed by the trees as they grow. It is also sometimes possible to specify the slaughtering season. On the other hand, these tree rings record the climatic and environmental conditions in which the woods have developed. What is particularly interesting is that at the time of the construction of the cathedral we are in what is called the medieval climatic optimum: a significant warming documented between the Xe and the XIVe century AD and preceding 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 causes, amplitude and stakes of the observed phenomena.

On a completely different subject, we have anthropologist colleagues who work on the emotion linked to disasters affecting cultural property, such as the fire at the Rio Museum of Anthropology in 2018 or that of Shuri Castle in Japan, which took place shortly after that of Notre-Dame de Paris. They try to understand how everyone reacted. They also document the feelings of all the people working directly or indirectly in the restoration.

TC: How do scientists manage to work on a site undergoing restoration?

MR: It's going quite well, but it's complex. Already from the point of view of the numerous scientific disciplines present which do not necessarily all have the same ways of working: chemists, physicists, historians, archaeologists… We do not have the same time constraints. Then we work on an emblematic monument. There is therefore a very strong expectation from the political authorities and the public.

On site, the working conditions are difficult: everyone has to respect a very precise schedule, so you have to be very efficient. In addition, there are many security constraints. As is well known, this space is heavily contaminated with lead, so you have to work with masks, wear protective suits, etc.

Fortunately, all of this is well coordinated, and we manage to work efficiently and enthusiastically, as the stakes are so exciting.

Martine Regert, Project manager for the CNRS for the management of the scientific site of Notre-Dame de Paris, Côte d'Azur University

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image credit: Shutterstock / Loic Salan

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