How a Medieval Tree Helped Debunk a Famous Instrument's Identity

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On October 30, 1962, a 20-year-old double bass player named Gary Karr took the stage at Town Hall in his New York City debut. During his performance of Bach and Schubert sonatas, Karr played with his eyes closed, seeming to sense the movements of the notes through his instrument. Howard Klein, a critic for The New York Times, praised Karr's "hard-won and superb technique" and innate feel for the bass. "He played it in a way that few bassists even dreamed of," Klein wrote.

In the audience, Olga Koussevitzky sat transfixed. Later, she described seeing the ghost of her husband, Serge Koussevitzky—the legendary director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and one of the greatest bassists who ever lived—embrace Karr on stage.

The experience prompted her to give the young musician her late husband's treasured double bass, now called the Karr-Koussevitzky bass. In 2004, when Karr retired from performing, he had it appraised—and realized it was not what it seemed. According to Discover, a team of dendrochronologists—scientists who study tree rings—found that the storied instrument had an unknown past.

Gary Karr (right) plays bass in a 1960s concert
Gary Karr (right) plays a double bass, possibly the Karr-Koussevitzky bass, in a 1969 concert.
Erich Auerbach/Getty Images

Serge Koussevitzky bought the bass in the early 20th century and believed that it had been made by the famed Amati brothers in 1611. Antonio and Girolamo Amati were contemporaries with the master violin maker Antonio Stradivari—in fact, Stradivari learned the craft from Girolamo Amati's son Nicolò. The brothers had a workshop in Cremona, Italy, that turned out beautiful and highly coveted stringed instruments, including violins, violas, and cellos—but very few, if any, double basses. The latter instruments are more than 6 feet tall and resonate an octave deeper than cellos, and because of their huge size and structure are considered difficult to master.

Karr, renowned as the greatest bassist of the 20th century, built his career on Koussevitzky's instrument and played it for more than 40 years. But when Karr had the instrument examined, three experts concluded that it could not have been made by the Amati brothers. They said its technical characteristics were more in line with instruments made in France around 1800. Without the Amati pedigree, the bass could be appraised at a lower value—so they brought in the tree scientists.

Henri Grissino-Mayer from the University of Tennessee and Georgina G. Deweese of the University of West Georgia analyzed the rings in the bass's wood, and then compared the pattern to four reference tree-ring chronologies of European species. They were able to discern a 317-year age sequence in the wood, with rings dating from 1445 to 1761, indicating that the tree was harvested sometime after 1770. (Instrument-makers tended to strip off some of the outer layers of wood to make it more pliable.)

The researchers also suggested that the spruce tree from which the bass was made came from an alpine area of western Austria. From those clues, they concluded it was not crafted by the Amati brothers, but by a French maker in the late 18th century from Austrian lumber.

Nevertheless, the instrument remains revered thanks to its history alongside two of history's greatest bassists. Karr donated the instrument to the International Society of Bassists so that musicians can continue to play and learn from it. "I am determined to honor the original intentions of Olga Koussevitzky to present the double bass as a gift," Karr said at the time of the donation, "and it is my wish that the instrument leave my possession in the same manner."

The Weird, Disturbing World of Snail Sex

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Romance is rare in the animal kingdom. Instead of wooing their partners before copulating, male ducks force themselves onto females, depositing genetic material with spiky, corkscrew penises. Then, there's tardigrade sex, which is less violent but not exactly heartwarming. Females lay eggs into a husk of dead skin. The male then ejaculates onto the eggs while stroking the female, and the whole process can take up to an hour.

But you can't talk about disturbing mating rituals in nature without mentioning snails. If you're unfamiliar with snail sexuality, you may assume that snail sex falls on the vanilla side: The mollusks, after all, are famous for being slow-moving and they don't even have limbs. But if you have the patience to watch a pair of snails going at it, you'll notice that things get interesting.

The first factor that complicates snail sex is their genitalia. Snails are hermaphrodites, meaning individuals have both a male set and female set of parts, and any two snails can reproduce with each other regardless of sex. But in order for a couple of snails to make little snail babies, one of them needs to take on the role of the female. That's where the love dart comes in.

The love dart, technically called a gypsobelum, isn't exactly the Cupid's arrow the name suggests. It's a nail-clipping-sized spike that snails jab into their partners about 30 minutes before the actual sex act takes place. The sliver is packed with hormones that prepare the receiving snail's body for sperm. Depending on the species, only one snail might release the dart, or they both might in an attempt to avoid becoming the female of the pair. You can watch the action in the video below.

For sex to be successful, both snails must insert their penises into the other's vaginal tracts at the same time. Both snails deposit sperm, and the strength of the love dart ultimately determines whether or not that sperm fertilizes their partner's eggs.

That's assuming the snail survives the little love-stab. In human proportions, the love dart is the equivalent of a 15-inch knife. Fortunately, snails are resilient creatures, and gastropod researcher Joris Koene tells KQED he's only ever seen one snail die from the transfer.

Snails also have a way of making it up to their partners after skewering them with a hormone stick. Their sperm deposit contains a dose of fortifying nutrients, something scientists refer to as a nuptial gift. It may not equal the energy expended during sex, but its enough to give them a small post-coital boost.

10 Facts About Rosacea

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Rosacea, a skin condition characterized by redness and swelling, is incredibly common: A recent study found that an estimated 300 million people worldwide suffer from it. Here’s what you need to know about the condition.

1. IT HAS A LONG HISTORY.

According to the National Rosacea Society (NRS), rosacea was first described in the 14th century by a French surgeon named Dr. Guy de Chauliac; he called it goutterose (“pink drop” in French) or couperose and noted that it was characterized by “red lesions in the face, particularly on the nose and cheeks.”

2. SCIENTISTS AREN’T SURE WHAT CAUSES IT ...

But they have some theories. According to the NRS, “most experts believe it is a vascular disorder that seems to be related to flushing.” Scientists also think that because rosacea seems to run in families, it might be genetic. Other things—like mites that live on the skin, an intestinal bug called H pylori (common in those who have rosacea), and a reaction to a bacterium called bacillus oleronius—could also play a role in causing the condition. One 2015 study suggested an increased risk among smokers.

3. … BUT SOME PEOPLE ARE MORE LIKELY TO HAVE IT THAN OTHERS.

Though people of all ages and skin tones can get rosacea, fair skinned people between the ages of 30 and 50 with Celtic and Scandinavian ancestry and a family history of rosacea are more likely to develop the condition. Women are more likely to have rosacea than men, though their symptoms tend to be less severe than men’s. But men are more likely to suffer from a rare rosacea side effect known as rhinophyma, which causes the skin of the nose to thicken and become bulbous. It’s commonly—and mistakenly—associated with heavy drinking, but what exactly causes rhinophyma is unclear. According to the NRS, “The swelling that often follows a flushing reaction may, over time, lead to the growth of excess tissue (fibroplasia) around the nose as plasma proteins accumulate when the damaged lymphatic system fails to clear them. Leakage of a substance called blood coagulation factor XIII is also believed to be a potential cause of excess tissue.” Thankfully, those who have rhinophyma have options available for treatment, including surgery and laser therapy.

4. THERE ARE FOUR SUBTYPES.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), rosacea “often begins with a tendency to blush or flush more easily than other people.” All rosacea involves redness of some kind (typically on the nose, cheeks, chin, and forehead), but other symptoms allow the condition to be divided into four subtypes: Erythematotelangiectatic rosacea is characterized by persistent redness and sometimes visible blood vessels; Papulopustular rosacea involves swelling and “acne-like breakouts”; Phymatous rosacea is characterized by thick and bumpy skin; and Ocular rosacea involves red eyes (that sometimes burn and itch, or feel like they have sand in them [PDF]), swollen eyelids, and stye-like growths.

5. IT’S NOT THE SAME AS ACNE.

Though rosacea was once considered a form of acne—"acne rosacea" first appeared in medical literature in 1814—today doctors know it’s a different condition altogether. Though there are similarities (like acne, some forms of rosacea are characterized by small, pus-filled bumps) there are key differences: Acne involves blackheads, typically occurs in the teen years, and can appear all over the body; rosacea is a chronic condition that occurs mainly on the face and the chest and typically shows up later in life.

6. YOU CAN FIND IT IN CLASSIC ART AND LITERATURE.

Both Chaucer and Shakespeare likely made references to rosacea. Domenico Ghirlandaio’s 1490 painting An Old Man and His Grandson seems to depict rhinophyma, and some believe that Rembrandt’s 1659 self-portrait shows that the artist had rosacea and rhinophyma.

7. IT MAY BE TRIGGERED BY CERTAIN FOODS AND ACTIVITIES.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) [PDF], people report that everything from the weather to what you eat can cause rosacea to flare up: Heat, cold, sunlight, and wind, strenuous exercise, spicy food, alcohol consumption, menopause, stress, and use of steroids on the skin are all triggers.

8. THERE ARE A NUMBER OF MYTHS ABOUT ROSACEA.

No, it’s not caused by caffeine and coffee (flare ups, if they occur, are due to the heat of your coffee) or by heavy drinking (though alcohol does exacerbate the condition). Rosacea isn’t caused by poor hygiene, and it’s not contagious.

9. THERE ARE SOME PRETTY FAMOUS PEOPLE WITH ROSACEA.

Sophia Bush, Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Chenoweth, Bill Clinton, and Sam Smith all have rosacea. Diana, Princess of Wales had it, too. W.C. Fields had rosacea and rhinophyma, and Andy Warhol may also have suffered from those conditions.

10. IT CAN’T BE CURED—BUT IT CAN BE TREATED.

The NRS reports that “nearly 90 percent of rosacea patients [surveyed by NRS] said this condition had lowered their self-confidence and self-esteem, and 41 percent reported it had caused them to avoid public contact or cancel social engagements.” Dr. Uwe Gieler, a professor of dermatology at the Justus-Liebig-University in Giessen, Germany, and one of the authors of the report Rosacea: Beyond the Visible, said in a press release that "People with rosacea are often judged on their appearance, which impacts them greatly in daily life. If their rosacea is severe, the symptoms are likely to be more significant also, from itching and burning to a permanently red central facial area. However, even people with less severe rosacea report a significant impact on quality of life."

Which makes it all the more unfortunate that there’s not a cure for the condition. Thankfully, though, there are treatments available.

There are no tests that will diagnose rosacea; that’s up to your doctor, who will examine your medical history and go over your symptoms. Doctors advise that those with rosacea pay attention to what triggers flare-ups, which will help them figure out how to treat the condition. Antibiotics might be prescribed; laser therapy might be used. Anyone with rosacea should always wear sunscreen [PDF] and treat their skin very, very gently—don't scrub or exfoliate it. The AAD recommends moisturizing daily and avoiding products that contain things like urea, alcohol, and glycolic and lactic acids.

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