More than 500 years after it was built, Filippo Brunelleschi's dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy, remains the largest masonry dome ever built. But the dome's construction methods are still a secret, as no plans or sketches have been discovered. The only clue Brunelleschi left behind was a wooden and brick model. While the dome has been plagued by cracks for centuries, new breakthroughs in muon imaging may help preservationists uncover how to save the iconic structure and reveal new ideas on its construction.
Filippo Brunelleschi designed the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in the early 15th century. Standing out in the skyline of Florence, the structure was inspired by an inverted catenary shape. Spanning 150 feet and almost 300 feet in height, the dome was likely created with a series of stone chains and two shells. As Ars Technica reports, Elena Guardincerri, a physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, thinks she may be able to help solve part of the dome's mystery. Using subatomic particles through a process known as muon imaging, Guardincerri aims to uncover whether any reinforcement was added to the chains.
Similar to X-ray imaging, Muon imaging typically involves gas-filled chambers. As muons collide with gas particles, scientists record particle energy and trajectory. Used on a range of structures, including to search for hidden chambers in the Great Pyramid of Giza, the technique would allow scientists to see if Brunelleschi used iron bars to fortify his dome. Elena Guardincerri plans to use two smaller, portable detectors to study the dome. The detectors will be mounted in the dome itself to collect data for a few months. Once complete, Guardincerri's work may finally reveal the secrets of Brunelleschi's dome.