The Unmeasurable in Scientific Discovery
Kevin Rooney
Kevin Rooney
Data Scientist

From 1951-1954, approximately 65,000 people, mostly children under the age of five, became paralytics due to polio and another 7,500 died from the same disease. In 1954, unable to find a cure for polio and exhausted, Jonas Salk decided to retreat to the Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, in Umbria, Italy.

Picture1 1
Image 1. Painting of the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi by John Weir, 1902.

During his stay at the Basilica, Jonas Salk came to important conclusions that helped him discover the polio vaccine. One of the most important conclusions was Jonas’s association that the architecture of the Basilica allowed him to discover the vaccine.

The spirituality of the architecture there was so inspiring that I was able to do intuitive thinking far beyond any I had done in the past. Under the influence of that historic place I intuitively designed the research that I felt would result in a vaccine for polio. I returned to my laboratory in Pittsburgh to validate my concepts and found that they were correct. P.185 Utopias and Architecture

He felt so strongly about this conclusion that he sought out the world’s greatest architects to help him design a scientific research institution that could provide the same atmosphere of cognitive opportunity as the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi had afforded to him.

Ultimately, Dr. Salk formed a highly complex partnership with Louis Kahn, one of architecture’s most influential architects of the 20th century, leading to one of the greatest modern designs, the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. The energy of their relationship remains tangible in the Academy of Neuroscience for Architects.

Image 2. The plaza at the Salk institute overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The stream is oriented to receive the setting sun during the fall and spring equinox. The two flanking buildings comprise the offices for researchers which also look out over the Pacific.

At the core of their complex partnership was the notion that art can inspire the unmeasurabledepths of the soul allowing the mind to flow more freely for discovery. In Kahn’s words:

A great building, in my opinion, must begin with the unmeasurable, must go through measurable means when it is being designed and in the end must be unmeasurable. P.69 Louis Kahn: Essential Texts

Kahn’s idea about the unmeasurable points to our innate need to believe in something greater than what we expect, in a notion that is just out of reach but nevertheless meaningful to who we are. For Jonas, his unmeasurable was the belief he could cure something for which he had no answer. His time within the architecture of the Basilica in Umbria provided the structure that allowed Jonas to relinquish his mind to that belief in order to discover the cure.

Belief, by its nature, is the open-mindedness to something that we don’t fully understand but are affirmed in knowing that it is there. Many artists often speak of discovering what they already believe exists within their work. In two separate occasions, Michelangelo Bounarroti described his belief in the existence of something within the stone prior to sculpting.

I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.

Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.

It is difficult to understand belief without understanding the role imagination plays to support it. Whether as the artist, the architect, or the scientist we must imagine the possibilities prior to pursuing them.

In the opening statements of Intertwining: Unfolding Art and Science, the editors call attention to the role of imagination as the first step in scientific research.

We need to be mindful though, that the world and experience can never be fully described or accounted for using the strict methods of science. As John Dewey reminds us, “Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of imagination.” The world opens ever wider through the work of the imagination. P.10 Intertwining: Unfolding Art and Science

In synthesis, I would suggest that discovery is an unmeasurable state of mind. It is a belief that the unattainable is attainable, driven by our imagination to achieve it. In this sense, discovery transcends measurement as it reaches further into hope.

Whether the aim is art, architecture, or science, it seems that the necessary presence of the unmeasurable is an important factor for great discoveries. Given that science relies a great deal on the measurable, my description of scientific discovery may seem unsettling and intangible to some in the scientific field. In response, I would offer the possibility that Jonas Salk’s perseverance in his belief did not rest on the measureable numbers of polio patients, like the ones stated at the beginning of this article, but on the unmeasurable difference his discovery could have on each and every child, including you and me.

Ultimately, the collaborative effort of Jonas Salk and Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute stands as a tuning mechanism for the act of discovery. Every detail in the design is meant to affirm the chaos of the intangible and the order of discovery, providing fertile grounds for imagination. It is a testimony to the need that research is not only a measurable effort, but a belief that we can on occasion relieve the burden of pain and illness through our pursuit of the unmeasurable task of discovery. The risk is losing sight that research is the unceasing desire to set free “the angel in the marble.”

Image 3 (left). Detail of Michelangelo’s unfinished sculpture “Atlas Slave”, circ. 1523. Image 4 (right). Electron microscope image of vero cells for Jonas Salk’s Inactivated Polio Vaccine (IPV) production.


(1999, April 2). Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999 Impact of Vaccines Universally Recommended for Children — United States, 1990-1998. Retrieved from

Coleman, N. (2007). Utopias and architecture. Routledge.

Kahn, L. I. (2003). Louis Kahn: essential texts. WW Norton & Company.

Robinson, S., & Pallasmaa, J. (Eds.). (2015). Mind in architecture: Neuroscience, embodiment, and the future of design. MIT Press.

Alessandro, G., Robinson, S., & Ruzzon, D. (Eds.). (2018). Intertwining: Unfolding Art and Science. Mimesis International.


  1. By John Ferguson Weir – Vose Galleries, Boston, Massachusetts, Public Domain,
  3. By Jorg Bittner Unna – Florence, Galleria dell’ Accademia, Public Domain,
  4. By Sanofi Pasteur –