Stradivari Violins May Not Sound Better After All

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iStock

The mystical aura of perfection surrounding Stradivari violins may be just that: an aura, and nothing more. A study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that violinists and listeners alike actually prefer the sound of newer instruments.

“Old Italian violins are routinely credited with playing qualities supposedly unobtainable in new instruments,” the authors write in their paper. “These qualities include the ability to project their sound more effectively in a concert hall—despite seeming relatively quiet under the ear of the player—compared with new violins.”

For two centuries, the most accomplished violinists in the world have relied on instruments made by the legendary craftsmen Antonio Stradivari or Guarneri del Gesu. One concertmaster described the Stradivarius’s “peculiar (and sublime)” sound that “somehow expands and gains more complexity from a distance, especially in a concert hall.”

But does it, really?

To find out, researchers conducted two studies involving both professional violinists and listeners of all experience levels. The first study was held in 2012 in a small concert hall near Paris involving 55 participants, and the second in 2013 in a larger hall in New York City with 82 participants. The listeners were seated in the audience and the soloists on stage. Between them, the scientists erected a sound-conducting screen so that the listeners could hear, but not see, the instrument.

To test the musicians’ own preferences, the researchers covered their eyes with modified welders’ goggles before handing them either an old or new violin to play.

Without the ability to see which instrument was producing the music, neither players nor listeners could actually tell the difference between the new and old violins. But when it came time to rate sound quality and projection, new violins consistently and significantly won out.

“A belief in the near-miraculous qualities of Old Italian violins has preoccupied the violin world for centuries,” the authors write. “It may be that recent generations of violin makers have closed the gap between old and new, or it may be that the gap was never so wide as commonly believed.”

A Simple Skin Swab Could Soon Identify People at Risk for Parkinson's

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iStock.com/stevanovicigor

More than 200 years have passed since physician James Parkinson first identified the degenerative neurological disorder that bears his name. Over five million people worldwide suffer from Parkinson’s disease, a neurological condition characterized by muscle tremors and other symptoms. Diagnosis is based on those symptoms rather than blood tests, brain imaging, or any other laboratory evidence.

Now, science may be close to a simple and non-invasive method for diagnosing the disease based on a waxy substance called sebum, which people secrete through their skin. And it’s thanks to a woman with the unique ability to sniff out differences in the sebum of those with Parkinson's—years before a diagnosis can be made.

The Guardian describes how researchers at the University of Manchester partnered with a nurse named Joy Milne, a "super smeller" who can detect a unique odor emanating from Parkinson's patients that is unnoticeable to most people. Working with Tilo Kunath, a neurobiologist at Edinburgh University, Milne and the researchers pinpointed the strongest odor coming from the patients' upper backs, where sebum-emitting pores are concentrated.

For a new study in the journal ACS Central Science, the researchers analyzed skin swabs from 64 Parkinson's and non-Parkinson's subjects and found that three substances—eicosane, hippuric acid, and octadecanal—were present in higher concentrations in the Parkinson’s patients. One substance, perillic aldehyde, was lower. Milne confirmed that these swabs bore the distinct, musky odor associated with Parkinson’s patients.

Researchers also found no difference between patients who took drugs to control symptoms and those who did not, meaning that drug metabolites had no influence on the odor or compounds.

The next step will be to swab a a much larger cohort of Parkinson’s patients and healthy volunteers to see if the results are consistent and reliable. If these compounds are able to accurately identify Parkinson’s, researchers are optimistic that it could lead to earlier diagnosis and more effective interventions.

[h/t The Guardian]

World’s Oldest Stored Sperm Has Produced Some Healthy Baby Sheep

A stock photo of a lamb
A stock photo of a lamb
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It’s not every day that you stumble across a 50-year-old batch of frozen sheep sperm. So when Australian researchers rediscovered a wriggly little time capsule that had been left behind by an earlier researcher, they did the obvious: they tried to create some lambs. As Smithsonian reports, they pulled it off, too.

The semen, which came from several prize rams, had been frozen in 1968 by Dr. Steve Salamon, a sheep researcher from the University of Sydney. After bringing the sample out of storage, researchers thawed it out and conducted a few lab tests. They determined that its viability and DNA integrity were still intact, so they decided to put it to the ultimate test: Would it get a sheep pregnant? The sperm was artificially inseminated into 56 Merino ewes, and lo and behold, 34 of them became pregnant and gave birth to healthy lambs.

Of course, this experiment wasn’t just for fun. They wanted to test whether decades-old sperm—frozen in liquid nitrogen at -320°F—would still be viable for breeding purposes. Remarkably, the older sperm had a slightly higher pregnancy rate (61 percent) than sheep sperm that had been frozen for 12 months and used to impregnate ewes in a different experiment (in that case, the success rate was 59 percent).

“We believe this is the oldest viable stored semen of any species in the world and definitely the oldest sperm used to produce offspring,” researcher Dr. Jessica Rickard said in a statement.

Researchers say this experiment also lets them assess the genetic progress of selective breeding over the last five decades. “In that time, we’ve been trying to make better, more productive sheep [for the wool industry],” associate professor Simon de Graaf said. “This gives us a resource to benchmark and compare.”

[h/t Smithsonian]

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