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Madame Mathematics

With all the beer and sports around here (just 10 more hours left to enter our contest!), it's getting a little testosterone-y. So I thought I'd draw your attention to this wonderful piece in the Guardian about Emilie du Châtelet, intellectual femme fatale of the 18th century:

In her late 20s, after an affair with the individual who inspired the character Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses (she was the only partner he had who ever willingly dumped him), she met the poet and writer Voltaire, then in his 40s. ...

This is where the great problem with her subsequent reputation began, for Voltaire wasn't much of a scientist, but Du Châtelet was a skilled theoretician. Once, working secretly at night at the chateau over just one intense summer month, hushing servants to not spoil the surprise for Voltaire, she came up with insights on the nature of light that set the stage for the future discovery of photography, as well as of infrared radiation. It was a humiliating contrast for Voltaire, and especially grating when she began to probe into the still recent mathematical physics of Sir Isaac Newton.

Voltaire could not follow any of the maths, but on political grounds he wanted to believe that Newton was perfect in all respects. Du Châtelet, however, began a research programme that went beyond Newton and led to her glimpsing notions that would lead later researchers to the idea of conservation of energy fundamental to all subsequent physics.

voltaire.jpgdu Châtelet and Voltaire (at left, that's not an unflattering portrait of du Châtelet) eventually broke up, but he returned at her deathbed and later gave her a supremely backhanded compliment, calling her "a great man whose only fault was being a woman." There's lots more on du Châtelet, and how her work eventually led to the formation of e=mc2, here. (For more on her numerous affairs, stick with the Guardian piece.)

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Stradivarius Violins Get Their Distinctive Sound By Mimicking the Human Voice
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Italian violinist Francesco Geminiani once wrote that a violin's tone should "rival the most perfect human voice." Nearly three centuries later, scientists have confirmed that some of the world's oldest violins do in fact mimic aspects of the human singing voice, a finding which scientists believe proves "the characteristic brilliance of Stradivari violins."

Using speech analysis software, scientists in Taiwan compared the sound produced by 15 antique instruments with recordings of 16 male and female vocalists singing English vowel sounds, The Guardian reports. They discovered that violins made by Andrea Amati and Antonio Stradivari, the pioneers of the instrument, produce similar "formant features" as the singers. The resonance frequencies were similar between Amati violins and bass and baritone singers, while the higher-frequency tones produced by Stradivari instruments were comparable to tenors and contraltos.

Andrea Amati, born in 1505, was the first known violin maker. His design was improved over 100 years later by Antonio Stradivari, whose instruments now sell for several million dollars. "Some Stradivari violins clearly possess female singing qualities, which may contribute to their perceived sweetness and brilliance," Hwan-Ching Tai, an author of the study, told The Guardian.

Their findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. A 2013 study by Dr. Joseph Nagyvary, a professor emeritus at Texas A&M University, also pointed to a link between the sounds produced by 250-year-old violins and those of a female soprano singer.

According to Vox, a blind test revealed that professional violinists couldn't reliably tell the difference between old violins like "Strads" and modern ones, with most even expressing a preference for the newer instruments. However, the value of these antique instruments can be chalked up to their rarity and history, and many violinists still swear by their exceptional quality.

[h/t The Guardian]

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