Welcome to The Deep science and technology column where we cover topics from the deep sea to deep space and beyond.
Greetings! Well, this week the technology file is bulging, so hang on for a jaunt into the wonderful worlds of music and building construction. And if that’s not a wonderful juxtaposition, I don’t know what is!
A Violin Sweetly Singing
Everyone knows the name Stradivarius, but everyone may not realize why that name is famous. Antonio Stradivari was, quite simply, the maker of the best violins in the world. And this is still true even though he lived in the 1600’s.
Musicians and scientists have tried for centuries to discover what gives a Stradivarius violin its astoundingly beautiful sound. Some new research has been done that may not only explain it, but give some insights on how to reproduce it.
Joseph Nagyvary, a professor emeritus of biochemistry at Texas A&M University, has been working to solve the Stradivarius mystery for 34 years and he is confident he has succeeded. Dr. Nagyvary first theorized in 1976 that chemicals used on the instruments, not just the wood and the construction, are responsible for the distinctive sound of these violins.
His controversial theory has now received definitive experimental support through collaboration with Renald Guillemette, director of the electron microprobe laboratory in the Department of Geology and Geophysics, and Clifford Spiegelman, professor of statistics, both Texas A&M faculty members.
Dr. Nagyvary assumed that the wood Stradivari used was aggressively treated with chemicals and the chemicals were what created the sound. He got very small wood samples from restorers working on Stradivarius violins (“no easy trick and it took a lot of begging to get them,” he adds). The results of the preliminary analysis, suggested that the wood was treated with unidentified chemicals. In the present study, the researchers burned the wood slivers to ash, the only way to obtain accurate readings for the chemical elements they contained.
They found numerous chemicals in the wood, among them borax, fluorides, chromium and iron salts. The presence of these chemicals points to a collaboration between the violinmakers and the druggists of the time. Stradivari would have treated the wood with chemicals to keep worms from eating his precious violins.
Antonio Stradivari (1644–1737) made about 1,200 violins in his lifetime and sold them only to the very rich, primarily the royalty. Today, there are about 600 Stradivarius violins remaining and they are valued at up to $5 million each.
Dr. Nagyvary, a native of Hungary who learned to play the violin by using an instrument that once belonged to Albert Einstein, has wondered for decades how Stradivari, with his rudimentary education and no scientific training, could have produced musical instruments with such an unequaled sound. He believes the current findings will be of great interest to art historians and musical instrument makers around the world and could change the process of how fine violins are made.
What makes a Stradivarius’ violin sound different from other violins? (Credit: iStockphoto/José Carlos Pires Pereira)
But there are other theories about the cause of the beautiful sound of the instruments created by the old masters. Read on.
There was a music contest last year that none of us heard about. And it occurred at a conference on forest husbandry, (science talk for “How to Manage Your Trees”). Not a noted venue for a music contest.
A gentleman named Francis Schwarze who is a researcher for the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research played his ‘biotech violin’ in a head to head contest with a Stradivarius and he won!
1 September 2009 was the day of reckoning for Schwarze and Swiss violin maker Michael Rhonheimer. The violin they created used wood treated with a specially selected fungus and they played it in a blind test against a violin made in 1711 by the master violinmaker Antonio Stradivari.
In the test, the British violinist Matthew Trusler played five different instruments behind a curtain, so the audience didn’t know which one was being played. One of the violins Trusler played was his own Stradivarius, worth two million dollars. The other four were all made by Rhonheimer. The wood of two of them was treated with the fungus and the other two were made of untreated wood.
A jury of experts, together with the conference participants, judged the tone quality of the violins. The top vote getter was ‘Opus 58’ one of the treated violins. Trusler’s Stradivarius was rated second, but most of the people who voted for ‘Opus 58’ thought it was the Stradivarius. Opus 58 had been treated with fungus for the longest time, nine months.
Judging the tone quality of a musical instrument in a blind test is, of course, an extremely subjective matter, since it is a question of pleasing the human senses. Since the beginning of the 19th century violins made by Stradivari have been compared to instruments made by others in blind tests, including one organized by the BBC in 1974. In that test, the world famous violinists Isaac Stern and Pinchas Zukerman and the English violin dealer Charles Beare were challenged to distinguish a Stradivarius made in 1725, two other instruments made in 1739 and 1846 and a modern instrument made by the English master violin maker Roland Praill. The result was rather sobering – none of the experts could correctly identify more than two of the four instruments, and in fact two of the jurors thought that the modern instrument was actually the Stradivarius.
Many experts feel the success of the “fungus violin” in the current contest represents a revolution in the field of classical music because talented young musicians will be able to afford a violin with the same tonal quality as an impossibly expensive Stradivarius. Fungal growth changes the cell structure of the wood, reducing its density and simultaneously increasing its homogeneity. The experts believe that a violin made of wood treated with the fungus has a warmer, more rounded sound.
The five instruments played during the test. Visually, there is very little difference between them.
Chemicals or fungus? It makes a difference in the world of music! And now we’ll turn our attention to more mundane things. Building construction! And our first consideration is a building material we’re all familiar with. Cement!
Cementing it all together
In the 2,000 or so years since the Roman Empire employed a naturally occurring form of cement to build a vast system of concrete aqueducts and other big building projects (think Coliseum), researchers have analyzed the molecular structure of natural materials and created entirely new building materials like steel, which has a well-documented crystalline structure at the atomic scale.
Oddly enough, the molecular structure of
cement hydrate — the paste that forms and quickly hardens when cement powder is mixed with water — has eluded all attempts at decoding, despite the fact that concrete is the most prevalent man-made material on earth and the focus of a multibillion-dollar industry.
Scientists long believed that at the atomic level, cement (or calcium-silica-hydrate) resembled the rare mineral tobermorite, which has an ordered geometry consisting of layers of infinitely long chains of three-armed silica molecules (called silica tetrahedra) interspersed with neat layers of calcium oxide.
But a research team from MIT has discovered that the calcium-silica-hydrate in cement isn’t really a crystal. It’s a hybrid that shares some characteristics with crystals and some with the amorphous structure of frozen liquids, like glass or ice.
At the atomic scale, tobermorite has horizontal layers of triangles interspersed with layers of stripes. But a two-dimensional look at cement hydrate shows layers of triangles with every third, sixth or ninth triangle turned up or down along the horizontal axis and reaching into the layer of calcium oxide above or below.
And it is in these messy areas – where breaks in the silica tetrahedra create small voids in the corresponding layers of calcium oxide – that water molecules attach, giving cement its robust quality. The flaws in the otherwise regular geometric structure provide some give to the building material at the atomic scale that transfers up to the macro scale. When under stress, cement has the flexibility to stretch or compress just a little, rather than snapping.
And since most of our houses here in the Marianas are built with cement and concrete, it’s a very good thing, given all our earthquakes that it has that little bit of flexibility!
Concrete being poured from a cement truck chute on a new sidewalk construction project. (Credit: iStockphoto/Mike Clarke)
And now a little story about a pig. Specifically one of the three little pigs, the last one. You remember, the one that made his house not of cement but straw . . . .
I’ll Huff and I’ll Puff and . . . . .
The cement industry is a major Earth pollutant. The manufacture of cement is responsible for about 5 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions worldwide, and new emission standards proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could push the cement industry to the developing world.
Researchers are trying to come up with a way to reduce that carbon footprint and scientists at the University of Bath in England have made a house that could do that. It’s made of straw.
Well, it’s actually made of pre-fabricated straw-bale and hemp panels and strangely enough, has fire resistance as good as houses built of conventional building materials.
The scientists tested one of the pre-fabricated panels, for fire safety by exposing it to temperatures over 1000°C. To reach the required standard the panel had to withstand the heat for more than 30 minutes. Over two hours later — four times as long as required — the panel had still not failed.
The straw house will be monitored for a year to assess its insulating properties, humidity levels, air tightness and sound insulation qualities to assess the performance of straw and hemp as building materials.
Straw is a very good insulator and the house has reduced heating bills of up to 85% compared to a house of similar size made from conventional materials. In addition, straw is an ideal environmentally-friendly building material because it is renewable and is a by-product of existing farming production. Because the plant that becomes straw absorbs carbon dioxide as it grows, buildings made from it have a very low carbon footprint.
A house made of straw? One wonders how it would stand up to the ‘huff and puff’ of a typhoon.
BaleHaus at Bath is constructed from straw bale prefabricated panels and has a very low carbon footprint. (Credit: Image by Modcell — www.modcell.co.uk)