Catenary Inversion: Curves of Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia is stunning and beautiful. If you ever go visit, don’t miss out on the bottom level: there are exhibitions about the constructions and history of this masterpiece by Gaudi. When I visited a while ago, I was surprised to find a model that explained how the curves of the arches of the church were designed, and it was really cool.

To start out, imagine you’re building the roof of a house. Usually they are like this: /\. Modern houses also look like this: Π. The point is, a flat roof is hard to support, so the older houses are all angled. If you hold a dumbbell horizontally to your side, you’ll feel tired a lot faster than holding it angled upwards. This is because materials in general are a lot better at handling compression than bending forces. By holding your arm at an angle, you are supporting part of the weight by compressing your arm along its own direction, reducing the amount of force perpendicular to that direction. Back to the roof: a flat one is fine if made by concrete and steel, but if we use a long piece of wood, maybe not.

Anyway, using the same materials, an arch shaped building will last much longer than a flat topped one, simply because the bricks are subject to bending forces to a less extent. The problem then becomes: how can we find the shape that minimizes bending force at every point on the arch (to zero, actually)?

If you remember high school physics, we can dive into it. Say we draw an arch like this: ∩, and we pick any brick on the arch (say on the left half). Let’s pretend this is the ideal curve, such that there is no bending force anywhere. This little brick you picked is going to have a tiny bit of mass, and the slope of the arch changes a little bit before and after it. Then we have three forces acting on this dot: gravity which points down, force from the left brick supporting it, and force to the right brick. The latter two forces have slightly different slopes, and the three add up to 0 (otherwise the arch will collapse. Note that we don’t have forces perpendicular to the arch between bricks, which is the whole point.) Oh no, we have a differential equation! It’s been 2 days since I took that exam, I have forgotten everything! What do I do?

The Catenary Curve

Consider this seemingly unrelated physical problem: given a string with multiple beads on it on regular intervals. Now you hold the two ends loosely such that it forms a U shape. What properties does this shape satisfy? Similarly, consider a single bead (again, on the left side, but as they say: WLOG) there are three forces acting on this bead: gravity pulling it down, force from the left bead pulling it up, and force to the right bead. You probably saw this coming: these three forces are same as those we just talked about on bricks, but pointing to exactly the opposite directions! (I am too lazy to draw a picture, you can try to get the idea). What’s more, these three forces also add up to 0, since the beads are not moving. This means that we can take the shape of the string, put it upside down, and make a perfect arch out of it. To see why this is true, imagine you draw the perfect string curve on paper, drawing out the forces. Now you rotate the paper 180 degrees and negate all three forces on the beads. (1) The three forces still sum to 0; (2) gravity still points down with the right amount; (3) the remaining two forces still balance out with the forces on the bricks nearby, since those are also negated. Hence, this curve satisfies all of our requirements. We have found the answer! If I recall correctly, architects actually used this method to draw the curves for blueprints. This curve of beads on a string is called the catenary curve, and the solution is in the form of the hyperbolic cosine, which is essentially a sum of two exponential functions, having equal but opposite signs of exponents.

As a personal anecdote, a physics professor of mine once called a problem “physically solved” after he wrote out the equations which uniquely determine the answer, because the rest can be solved by mathematics, either analytically or numerically. This can lead to very uninteresting tests, for example simply writing out the Maxwell equations for every single EM problem. In our case, the arch problem is not only “physically solved” because we can derive the curve using the same differential equation as catenary curves, but also that we can “physically solve” it using beads, a string and actual physics.

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