The Michigan Daily - New Student Edition - Fall 2005 - 11C
*Student cracks mystery of Mona Lisa's deterioration
By Adrian Chen
and Michael Kan
JANUARY 7. 2005
Cracking a smile more than 500 years ago, the mysterious
woman in Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" inspired the
artist to create one of the world's most recognizable works
of art. Now the painting itself is cracking, and conserva-
tionists at the Louvre - the renowned Paris museum that
houses the painting - are rushing to determine the cause of
the deterioration, using X-rays and infrared technology to
diagnose the problem.
The crack has conservationists stumped, as the Mona Lisa
is kept in a sealed, temperature-and humidity-controlled
environment that should protect it from damage.
But Evan Quasney, a University Engineering junior, thinks
he has explained the phenomenon - without ever looking at
the painting in person.
"I've never seen the thing," Quasney said. "I've never even
been to the Louvre."
Instead, Quasney explored the effects of different
forces - changes in temperature and humidity - on the
painting using a computer model he helped develop dur-
ing an internship at the Smithsonian Center for Materi-
als Research and Education, an organization dedicated to
researching conservation techniques.
Quasney, his supervisor, Marlion Mecklenburg, and anoth-
er student spent last summer finishing and perfecting the
model, which can simulate the effects of these forces onto
any painting from the high renaissance period done on a thin
panel of wood, such as the Mona Lisa.
Using the model, Quasney and his colleagues ran simula-
tions to determine the effect of humidity on the paintings and
came to some surprising conclusions - surprising because,
if their results are correct, the centuries-old practices of con-
servationists hoping to protect artwork is actually doing more
harm than good.
On its own, a panel painting will warp as changes in humid-
ity cause parts of it to expand. The flexibility of the panels is
impressive: A 20 by 40-inch panel can bend as much as four
inches without breaking, Quasney said.
Although the bending itself is not harmful to the work,
people were unhappy with the appearance of the warped
paintings, so conservationists and collectors began attaching
dense pieces of wood called battens to the backs of paint-
ings to correct and prevent warping. However, as years went
on, warping continued despite the battens, and so additional
criss-crossing frames of wood called cradles were attached.
But according to Quasney's model, these measures caused
"(With battens and cradles) the panel is not allowed to
move the way it's supposed to - as a result, very high stress
levels are introduced into the back of the panel," which can
lead to cracking, Quasney said.
The cracking of the Mona Lisa gave Quasney and his col-
leagues a good chance to apply their model to a prominent,
Quasney entered the parameters corresponding to the
Mona Lisa into the model and went to work. Ten weeks later,
he was able to offer an explanation for the Mona Lisa's mys-
The Mona Lisa is stored in an airtight, climate-controlled
glass case, but it was still subjected to changes in the weather
outside that ultimately damaged it, Quasney said.
"What we believe was happening is that, because the glass
container was placed against an exterior wall, in the winter
the glass wall of the case would be cooler than the surround-
ing air," Quasney said.
This led to condensation of water inside the case on the
glass wall, which eventually dripped down into the wood
panel of the painting. Then, because of the battens attached
Engineering junior Evan Quasney crouches next to The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, a panel painting by Jan
Sanders van Hemessen in the University's Museum of Art.
to the painting, the Mona Lisa started to buckle and crack as
stress built up, according to Quasney's computer model.
Quasney's findings are controversial and have met
resistance in the conservation world because their accep-
tance would mean a complete re-thinking of traditional
Regardless, Quasney is grateful for his experience working
on the Mona Lisa.
"It's cool to be able to do a little bit of research on preserv-
ing one of the most priceless pieces of art on the planet."
Panel discusses controversy over women in science fields
By Julia F. Homing
APRIL 19, 2005
Daily Staff Writer
Engineering Prof. Valeria Bertacco said it was
not until she entered the science field that she
discovered the stigma surrounding women scien-
tists. She said she does not think the stereotypes
are meant with malice, but that it is hard to avoid
the conception that women cannot accomplish as
much in physical sciences as men can. "(People)
still expect an old guy with a long beard to know
the most," she said.
Three months after Harvard University Presi-
dent Lawrence Summers sparked a national
debate with a comment on the innate differences
in abilities and preferences of women in sciences,
the Society of Women Engineers hosted a panel
discussion on the controversial remarks with three
University of Michigan professors of physical sci-
ences and engineering on April 18.
Physics Prof. Timothy McKay said Summers's
comments were not appropriate because he disre-
garded existing research done on gender issues in
the science fields. "For someone with that much
authority to speak publicly without understanding
the research behind it is disconcerting," he said.
The research on the subject includes a recent
study by Jacquelynne Eccles of the Institute of
Social Research, which followed 1,200 par-
ticipants from childhood to 30 years of age. The
study found evidence for significant differences
between the two genders.
Eccles said she found women to be less inter-
ested in engineering positions because they felt
they would be working individually instead of
with others. She said women have been seen to
be more social than men, as social disabilities are
more prevalent in men. Eccles said Asperger's
Disorder - a variant of autism in which those
affected experience social isolation - is much
more common in men.
"There are more men who aren't interested in
working in social groups - there are brain dif-
ferences between males and females," she said.
"(But) we don't know the extent to which those
brain differences contribute to the abilities of men
But McKay said cultural influences are
a greater factor in dissuading women from
entering sciences than these inherent differ-
ences. "The cultural expectation that people
have for what kinds of careers certain groups
pursue has an effect on the careers that those
groups pursue," he said.
McKay said the differences in women's repre-
sentation in sciences in other countries is indica-
tive of the 'influence of cultural norms. Eccles
agreed, adding that there are more women than
men in engineering in India.
The professors at the event spoke about the
burdens placed on women in physical science
fields. While Summers said some women would
not want to work in the fields because of the large
time commitment, Bertacco said the homogenous
environment is a greater factor. "It is difficult to
work in an environment where you are the only
person who stands out," she said.
The National Science Foundation's ADVANCE
program at the University works to promote
women in faculty positions in science and engi-
neering. The program has committees and advi-
sors who work to make the academic environment
friendly for women.
Chemistry Prof. Mark Banaszak Holl said the
program has been beneficial for his department.
"We can identify (women) as great candidates,
but we can't make them come. We've been able to
get them here, and these resources have helped,"
Another factor Summers cited was the innate
preference differences between men and women,
who may have more interest in having a family.
The professors all spoke against this notion, say-
ing both men and women take time off from their
careers following the birth of a child in their fami-
lies. McKay said two men in his department have
taken advantage of this option.
"I don't see why I can't have a husband (and this
job)," Bertacco said. "Why would a man be able
to work 50 hours a week and a woman couldn't?
Only because your grandmother didn't."
Eccles's study found that the controlling fac-
tors in the low numbers of women in science and
engineering are a result of a lack of confidence at
a young age, brought about by both parents and
teachers. "Parents are more likely to attribute
their daughter's math achievement to hard work
rather than talent," she said. "When you tell a girl
that she's doing it because she's working hard, she
doesn't draw the same confidence."
The study also discussed the influence of the
classroom setting on young women, as physical
science and engineering classes tend to focus
on competition with other students over overall
Holl said it is important for all instructors to
look into this type of research. "We try to provide
enough differences in the learning approaches
that are offered in the class to appeal to all the
different learning types," he said.
Joe Serwach, a University spokesperson, said
the presence of women in these fields has been
important in scientific study at the University. "If
any of these women had not gone into science,
all of these things that they discovered would not
have been known," Serwach said.
McKay stressed the importance of not alien-
ating women in these fields because of both the
need for diversity and simply raw numbers.
"Being a leader in science and technology in
the U.S. is essential - we need more than our fair
share of smart people. We need everyone who is
qualified to be working on it," he said.
Engineering sophomore Elizabeth Perez, who
organized the event, said she has seen the stereo-
typical attitudes that her male peers hold while
working on group projects.
"(They say), 'You do the write-up, we'll crunch
the numbers.' You wonder, is it my abilities that
are flawed?" she said.
"It's really uplifting to hear that the Michigan
faculty don't have the opinions that women don't
have the abilities to participate in these fields,"
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