Using Plato for Quantum Mechanics – Becca Napolitano

This is the first blog in our series featuring graduate students who are working in Digital Antiquity.  We hope this inspires you to follow both their work and maybe take your own in a new digital direction.

My first year digging at Coriglia, there was an exuberant red-headed ball of energy in my trench who fascinated me.  Not only because Becca was so outgoing (something that always startles my introverted nature) but because she quite unabashedly told me that she was a physics major.  Well, double major with Classics at Connecticut College.  She had no experience in archaeology and was there for an internship through school.  This made sense, a lot of us were there for program requirements.  I loved listening to her talk about the structures in the trench from a scientific perspective with another volunteer who was an engineering major – they brought a new angle to old topics.

DSC_0861I was hardly surprised, then, when I found out that Becca had been accepted this past spring to start her Master’s at Princeton University studying under Professor Glisic in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Princeton.  The catch? She’ll be studying Ancient Engineering.  This, of course, had me geeking out in the best way since that’s where many of my interests lay too and I made her tell me everything she knows.  She was equally interested when I told her I had taken some classes in digital modelling and was pursuing that field but then she asked me something that stumped me.  How did I calculate the mass, strength, stability etc. of a structure if I had no experience in physics or engineering?  My immediate thought was wait, doesn’t the computer do all that for you?  This is when it occurred to me that Becca was something I had only rarely heard of: a classicist who has a background in science.

Compartmentalization does not extend past the classrooms of the inexperienced, in classes and research where true learning and questioning is happening the blend is entirely intrinsic and organic.

DSC_1010I wanted to know if this was hard for her, blending the two worlds.  In my experience, people are usually divided into science or humanities.  They may have an interest in the other, but rarely a talent.  When I asked her if straddling the line between the two was hard, she vehemently disagreed.  “Oh that is not a fair question at all! Honestly I don’t think I could love one without the other.”  She said she always finds herself drawing from one when she was working on the other, like when she was doing quantum mechanics she draws from her experience with Plato.  “… I find it is hard to keep the world of the sciences and the humanities separate! Compartmentalization does not extend past the classrooms of the inexperienced, in classes and research where true learning and questioning is happening the blend is entirely intrinsic and organic.”

Then again, this blending isn’t that surprising considering how much Becca self-teaches.  She is the kind of person who, when she wants to learn something, will go out and find all the information she can about it until she feels she has it down.  When she learned about CAD while chatting with her professors and colleagues, she starting googling it to learn more.  She started out with learning how to draw a line in AutoCAD and now works quite fluently with AgiSoft.  She calls Google her “ever-patient” assistant with her digital work and I believe her.  I once overheard her asking a supervisor on the dig if she can help with the Total Station.  They asked if she’d had any experience working on it before and she replied well, no but I read the manual.  Because that’s Becca.

She returned to Coriglia this past summer for a second year to work on digital models of the collapsed structures at the site.  Her goal: use engineering analysis to reconstruct what the structures would/could have looked like pre-collapse, recreate the originals digitally and hopefully provide a visualization for what could have caused the collapse.  There are a few theories bouncing around right now, including a landslide, and Becca believes that an engineering perspective can help to understand.  Was it a landslide? Or an earthquake, something the region has lots of experience with.  Or was it quite simply just progressive degeneration?  She wasn’t content with staring and musing (a favourite pastime for many archaeologists) – she wants engineering and computers to help answer the question once and for all.

The two of us spent many a day working on different parts of the site trying to get the perfect series of pictures for creating 3D models of various rooms on Agisoft.  Our first attempt of a drain used about 50 pictures, our next on a giant bath, or vasca as the Italians call it, used about 200.  We soon figured out the difficulties of taking pictures of a structure vs. a small object (which is what I had learned on).  You have to do it either on a cloudy day (rare in Umbria in June) or when the sun is directly overhead (something you don’t want to do in Umbria in June).  You have to somehow extend your arm enough so that your shoes aren’t in the shot (hard) or the shadow from your arm (almost impossible).  We pretty much had it done by the end of the season, but we did have to sort through hundreds upon hundreds of photos.

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IMG_3974We did, eventually, get the models working and let me assure you, there is something amazingly surreal about navigating a trench that you’ve spent hours in on a computer screen.  Becca hopes to take these models and present them at a conference, ideally the AIA.  She also has a paper on the collapse of the amphitheater at Fidenae to finish up and then of course, grad school is starting in less than a month.  Despite the work load, she sounds ready to take on the challenge of the graduate life.

“For a lot of the modelling I do, there is no ‘right answer.’  There are some models that are more probable than others but there is never a photograph of “Oh, this is what the structure looked like in 25 AD, etc.”  In the beginning that was challenging for me, to not know if I was right before putting my work out there for people to critique.  But now I have learned to embrace the critiques because that means I and the people I am engaging with are learning. These “most probable” models I am working to create are never “finished products” they are invitations for further interpretation, questioning, and research which I have come to find as pretty cool. Instead of presenting my results as definitive, it opens the door for others to engage with the material.”

Becca hopes to continue working on Roman structures over the next few years but is interested in any other ancient structures.  She also had a chance to work on a model of an Etruscan tomb this past summer and this sparked an interest for other cultures and their engineering practices.  She also hopes to create a computer program that will allow for this kind of work to be done more easily on archaeological sites without the need for an on-site engineer.  If anyone could design this, she could and I know several people who would quite willingly line up for a copy.

Until that point, keep an eye out for Becca!  She’s ready to tackle modelling the ancient world and I have no doubt she can do it.

Interested in Becca’s work? Check it out here!

Twitter: @Paleodomologist


Thesis: Napolitano, Rebecca, “Failure at Fidenae: Visualization and Analysis of the Largest Structural Disaster in the Roman World” (2015). Physics, Astronomy and Geophysics Honors Papers. Paper 7.

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About Kat Solberg

Kat has her MA in Classical Archaeology from UBC, where she first became involved with the project. Its Media and Communications director, she is the voice of the project and all of its public dealings. When she's not glued to her computer, she can be found digging things up and obsessing over the Romans.

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