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Haverford College
Departments of Physics and Astronomy
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Roads Taken and Not Taken: Ralph Shayne ‘89

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Ralph Shayne with wife Lara and son Ian (in a photo taken by Ian's twin sister Paige) in Amiens Cathedral.
Ralph Shayne with wife Lara and son Ian (in a photo taken by Ian's twin sister Paige) in Amiens Cathedral.

More than two decades after he completed a senior thesis that combined art history and physics, Ralph Shayne '89 took a trip to see the French cathedral his capstone project was focused on.

Soon after it was built almost 800 years ago, the French cathedral of Notre Dame d’Amiens became one of the world’s most popular pilgrimage destinations. I had felt my own draw there ever since I chose the cathedral for my senior thesis, and had pledged to see it in person one day.

It only took 24 years.

As a senior, thanks to Haverford’s unparalleled academic freedom, I was allowed to select any thesis topic I could think of, as long as I could convince my adviser of its academic rigor and relevance to my major—physics. I came up with the idea of analyzing Notre Dame d’Amiens and how this magnificent structure was designed to stay standing for 800 years. The premise seemed like a perfect marriage of liberal arts disciplines—mixing science, art and history.

Amiens is the tallest cathedral in France. The local bishop was motivated to build it because he wasn’t happy with his current church, he had wealth and he wanted to impress. The high Gothic style featured vaulted ceilings that created the illusion of reaching up to the heavens, and the bishop ambitiously commissioned his builders to attempt the highest ceiling in the land. Another cathedral in nearby Beauvais tried to reach higher, but collapsed. This left people at the time with the impression that, at Amiens they had reached as close to God as He would allow.

For my thesis, I had the advantage of looking at the cathedral with analytic tools that didn’t exist at the time of its construction. My idea was to look at a cross-section of the church and see how it managed the stresses and strains of “dead” loads such as its own weight and “live” loads such as wind, snow and people.

Among my tasks, I needed to find an additional adviser (which I did in Swarthmore’s engineering department), learn several methodologies for analyzing structural engineering, find a software package that could perform the analysis and learn how to use it. Fortunately, in a move that surprised me, the physics department had no issue with paying for the software licenses I needed or giving me special privileges in the computer lab to use its newest, souped-up computer, which was a brand I had never heard of before: Dell.

The program continually crashed on me. I had to use a plotter that moved a colored marker around a piece of paper when I wanted to convert my on-screen results to paper. To change colors, I had to pause the plotter and swap markers. Through my analysis, though, I was able to pinpoint the locations of high stress within the cathedral’s walls and calculate whether the limestone material could handle that load level. I discovered isolated areas at important archways that looked highly unstable because of high tension.

My thesis project concluded with a public presentation that attracted then chair of the art department Charles Stegeman. He loved high Gothic cathedrals and had recently toured the notable French cathedrals—including Amiens. In a forum dominated by physics professors and majors, Stegeman’s perspective stood out. He appreciated how the cathedral brought form and function under one roof, and he asked if I had considered whether “divine intervention” might help explain why the roof had not collapsed. As a firsthand witness to the structure’s magnificence, he reminded everyone at the presentation that the cathedral was more than the subject of an analysis, but also a physical expression of beauty and human achievement. He also verified that, during his tour of Amiens, he had noticed cracking in the archways that my analysis had identified as unstable.

Last August, I finally took my family on a whirlwind trip to Northern France, in part to complete the journey I’d started during my senior year at Haverford more than two decades earlier. (Preparing for the trip, I started teaching my 10-year-old twins about the basics of cathedral design, only to learn that nothing can amuse a 10-year-old boy more than the words “flying buttress.”) As we rolled off the highway at Amiens, we were immediately greeted by the impressive site of the roof and steeple of the cathedral—rising high above all other structures. Arriving at the site, I found the intricate artwork of the building’s façade breathtaking, and I finally saw the cracks at the interior arches that provided both a validation of my analysis and a reminder of an element of human imperfection in the design. Notre Dame d’Amiens did not disappoint and instead made it abundantly clear why for hundreds of years pilgrims were attracted to the building’s boldness and reported mystical healing powers. For me, Amiens also stands as a reminder of how the study of science can be enhanced through the added perspective of the arts.

Ralph Shayne lives in Chicago, where he still plays (and now coaches) soccer and appreciates the beauty of a well-coined rap lyric. He received an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago and currently operates a specialty finance company, which he started in 2006.