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It's a peripheral smile

We've blogged about the Mona Lisa before. Who can blame us; some 500 years after she was painted, they're still uncovering the secrets Da Vinci embedded in his masterpiece. (Secrets like this.) Now, scientists have discovered the reason why Lisa's wan smile seems to disappear when you look at it: because we see it better with our peripheral vision.

It's thanks to the way our eye sees. We've got two types of vision: foveal -- what we use when we stare at things dead-on -- and peripheral -- which isn't so good at picking up detail, like foveal is, but is great at detecting the nuances of shadowed areas. "The elusive quality of the Mona Lisa's smile can be explained by the fact that her smile is almost entirely in low spatial frequencies, and so is seen best by your peripheral vision," Harvard Prof Margaret Livingstone said.

The same principle is at work when you stare at a single letter of text; it makes it tough to see the letters around it. The Mona Lisa's smile becomes obvious only if you stare at her eyes, or elsewhere on her face. Interesting, yes, but we're still left with one lingering question: why, Leonardo?

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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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