Sketching extends the brain

Yesterday we discussed in Diagnostics with Michael Henry the utility of sketching a conditions of a lighthouse. There is something weird about drawing with your hand that makes the recording so much tangible. It forces you to observe beyond seeing, to record beyond noticing. It is an active, not a passive learning activity.

I did just that this morning. I grabbed an old sketch book and a Muji pen, got on my bike, and went to the President’s House on Walnut Street to observe and sketch some Yellin gates fronting a Trumbauer-designed home. (Weirdly enough, the President’s House used to be the residence of Mr. Eisenlohr, a Gilded-Age tobacco magnet buried in West Laurel Hill, whose mausoleum I am doing a conditions survey for a Masonry conservation seminar!)

The gates on the other side of Walnut were far more exquisite. They were not a Yellin design, and they fronted a frat house! If architecture speaks to the aspirations of a society, well, this no doubt is a bummer.

What I observed was a regularly-decorated wrought-iron gate. The black coating covered the nooks and cracks. It makes me wonder if corrosion can travel through the network of the ironwork much like water is transported from the roots to the leaves of a tree. Suppose a 100 feet-long iron rod is covered in epoxy with the last inch left exposed to a marine environment. Would you see the expansion of the rod all the way to the end?

A scholar searching for a thesis topic is similar to an entrepreneur finding a problem for a startup to solve. It is a struggle to negotiate what we are interested in and what the world needs. Maybe I should redirect my attention to an alloy that has been used in monumental architecture but not studied enough. Besides Monell, what other is there?


I read an article for a class on Building Diagnostics that resonated with me. In talking about how museum conservators mitigate accidents, “Diversity of opinion is intellectually stimulating,” the author declared. Today in Studio, a professor asked our response to an exercise on self-evaluating our teamwork skills, and all I was thinking was about how stifling it is to voice disagreements. I feel like I am walking on thin ice in these classes and am afraid of saying the wrong thing, the wrong statement that might harm someone. Self-censorship in academia is becoming common place. It makes me want to read more than ever John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty”.

Today I am grateful for the evening rain that refreshed the neighborhood; the warm coffee machine in the office; and the opportunity to help students in completing their assignments.

Samuel Yellin and the search for a thesis topic

I want to make my thesis useful to architectural conservators. I don’t want this to be some obscure topic that does not advance the field. I would like this to be a material science thesis grounded on electrochemistry.

I want the thesis to be compact and succinct. One model I keep referring back is the Very Short Introduction series by Oxford University Press. These little books offer an introduction to a wide range of topics from Buddhism to Particle Physics. The style of these books is academic: unadorned, with graphics that are as elemental as a quick sketch. This is what I aim for: a thesis that stands strong even when stripped of embellishments in fonts, graphics, and flowery words.

Sam Yellin worked primarily with wrought iron and iron. I fear I am on a dead-end, where I may unsuccessfully find physical phenomena that is peculiar to the ironwork of Sam Yellin. If Sam Yellin will be the topic of my thesis, it would be a monograph, using case studies as a subcomponent.

I would like to build upon a master’s thesis that an archivist at Penn recommended to look at. It is a thesis in Monel, the alloy of copper and nickel that was popular in the 1920s. His research lays the groundwork to discover the phases and causes of Monel atmospheric corrosion. Yet the author has signaled that he intends to do the lab work himself. I do not wish to compete, so I may need to find another path that circles around my interests: Beaux-Arts architecture, 3D animations, and an interest to cross-discipline with Chemistry, electrochemistry, and physics.

How about I tackle the phases and causes of failure of artificial stone like that seen in McKim’s original Pennsylvania Station? This would be more of a history of technology thesis, with no treatment component, and I do want to create graphic animations that explain the deterioration mechanisms in a visually-compelling way. The Vaccine Makers Project has very interesting animations of how vaccines work. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey includes animations of subatomic particles. And the Fallen of World War II documentary presents an engaging story that visualizes statistics in a very compelling way.

New chapter

The summer is ending. I wrapped my summer internship. Moving to a new place in September. The fall classes start in two weeks. I am starting my new role as lab manager. Thesis ideas need to consolidate and I want to identify a faculty advisor.

My attention is now focused on cultivating new habits and maintaining the good ones with the coming changes. I want to:

  • start my days at 5 a.m.
  • get my hour of reading
  • get my hour of exercise at 7am
  • get to the lab at 8 am

I am excited about the reopening of Fisher Fine Arts Library. It makes me very happy to spend time here, especially being immersed in a good book with the warm sun coming through the thermal windows.

Today I learned that too much caffeine makes my body “jumpy”.