What's the English translation of the Greek writing that's inscribed on the frieze on the facade of the National Academy of Sciences building?
Allan Wm. Johnson Jr., Arlington
Answer Man strolled over to the handsome Constitution Avenue building recently to have a little look-see for himself. But even though he watched three weeks of the Athens Olympics, he found he was unable to suddenly translate a language that he cannot read or speak.
In other words, when Answer Man looked at the inscription, it was all Greek to him.
(I'm sorry, but you knew that was coming.)
Luckily, the good folks at the National Academy of Sciences keep a translation handy. The inscription is from Aristotle's "Metaphysics," the second book, to be precise. Rendered into English, it goes like this:
"The investigation of truth is in one way hard and in another way easy. An indication of this is found in the fact that no one is able to attain the truth entirely, while on the other hand no one fails entirely, but everyone says something true about the nature of things, and by the union of all a considerable amount is amassed."
You will agree that this is the perfect sentiment to carve into a building that houses an organization dedicated to scientific enquiry. Dan Barbiero, manager of the academy's archives and records division, said that some scholars don't like the inscription. But Dan likes the quote -- chosen by a junior classics professor at Princeton named Robert Scoon -- since it portrays science as a "cumulative, self-correcting process."
As for the academy, it was created by Congress in 1863 as a way for esteemed scientists to offer advice to the government.
"We're a real interesting organization because we have social sciences as well as natural sciences," archivist Janice Goldblum said. "But everything has to have a scientific basis."
What the academy does is respond to requests, mainly from the government, to explore various scientific issues confronting the nation. When you're elected to the academy -- there are about 1,100 members now, all leaders in their fields -- it's with the understanding that you can be tapped to serve on a committee.
The very first report issued by the academy, in 1866, was on weights, measures and coins. The committee recommended that the United States adopt the French metric system, while noting that it "is not considered by many as well adapted to the Anglo-Saxon mind as one which might be devised."
More recent reports have included "Saving Women's Lives: Strategies for Improving Breast Cancer Detection and Diagnosis" and the no-doubt-fascinating "Developing a Research and Restoration Plan for Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim (Western Alaska) Salmon."
No bench science is done at the academy's Constitution Avenue building -- there wasn't a beaker in sight while I was there. A second NAS building opened in 2002 at Fifth and E streets NW and houses the Marian Koshland Science Museum.
It's worth at least walking around the original 1924 building, or even better, showing your ID and going inside to see one of the periodic exhibits it hosts. (For info, visit www.nationalacademies.org/arts.)
Architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue didn't want to design just another typically columned Washington building, especially with the Lincoln Memorial across the street. What Goodhue came up with was a style he called Alexandrian, after Alexandria, the Egyptian city that was heavily influenced by the Greeks.
Egyptian motifs abound. The Constitution Avenue entrance features squared-off columns that lean in slightly at the top, reminiscent of a pharaoh's tomb. Copper owls and lynxes dot the roofline, and the tiny face of Egyptian doctor Imhotep stares out from decorative panels showing great figures of science.
The jewel of the building is the Great Hall, a gloriously decorated, domed chamber that is a sort of scientific Sistine Chapel.
Hanging from the center of the dome is a Foucault pendulum, one of those tick-tock things that show the rotation of Earth. It doesn't work, though. Nor does the spectroheliograph in the center of the floor. This nifty device once broke the sun's rays down into the colors of the spectrum. It did this by allowing sunlight through an oculus -- a hole -- in the center of the dome. But when air conditioning was installed in the building in the 1960s, the hole was closed up.
Probably the most inviting thing at the academy isn't even inside. It's sculptor Robert Berks's huge Albert Einstein statue, the lap of which is perfect for climbing into. The sculpture sits on a granite plaza dotted with more than 2,700 metal studs representing planets and stars positioned as they were on April 22, 1979, the date the memorial was dedicated.
An earlier idea was to mirror the sky of March 14, 1879, the day Einstein was born, but that smacked too much of astrology for the science-minded academy members.
Oh, there's one other inscription at the academy, in the Great Hall, surrounding the base of the dome: "To science, pilot of industry, conqueror of disease, multiplier of the harvest, explorer of the universe, revealer of nature's laws, eternal guide to truth."
They just don't write 'em like they used to.
Answer Man might not know everything, but he does know two things: His e-mail is email@example.com, and his address is 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.