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."

How Did 6 Feet Become the Standard Grave Depth?

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It all started with the plague: The origins of “six feet under” come from a 1665 outbreak in England. As the disease swept the country, the mayor of London literally laid down the law about how to deal with the bodies to avoid further infections. Among his specifications—made in “Orders Conceived and Published by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London, Concerning the Infection of the Plague”—was that “all the graves shall be at least six feet deep.”

The law eventually fell out of favor both in England and its colonies. Modern American burial laws vary from state to state, though many states simply require a minimum of 18 inches of soil on top of the casket or burial vault (or two feet of soil if the body is not enclosed in anything). Given an 18-inch dirt buffer and the height of the average casket (which appears to be approximately 30 inches), a grave as shallow as four feet would be fine.

A typical modern burial involves a body pumped full of chemical preservatives sealed inside a sturdy metal casket, which is itself sealed inside a steel or cement burial vault. It’s less of a hospitable environment for microbes than the grave used to be. For untypical burials, though—where the body isn’t embalmed, a vault isn’t used, or the casket is wood instead of metal or is foregone entirely—even these less strict burial standards provide a measure of safety and comfort. Without any protection, and subjected to a few years of soil erosion, the bones of the dearly departed could inconveniently and unexpectedly surface or get too close to the living, scaring people and acting as disease vectors. The minimum depth helps keep the dead down where they belong.

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This article originally appeared in 2012.

One Good Reason Not to Hold in a Fart: It Could Leak Out of Your Mouth

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The next time you hold in a fart for fear of being heard by polite company, just remember this: It could leak out of your mouth instead of your butt. Writing on The Conversation, University of Newcastle nutrition and dietetics professor Clare Collins explains that pent-up gas can pass through your gut wall and get reabsorbed into your circulation. It's then released when you exhale, whether you like it or not.

“Holding on too long means the build up of intestinal gas will eventually escape via an uncontrollable fart,” Collins writes. In this case, the fart comes out of the wrong end. Talk about potty mouth.

A few brave scientists have investigated the phenomenon of flatulence. In one study, 10 healthy volunteers were fed half a can of baked beans in addition to their regular diets and given a rectal catheter to measure their farts over a 24-hour period. Although it was a small sample, the results were still telling. Men and women let loose the same amount of gas, and the average number of “flatus episodes” (a single fart, or series of farts) during that period was eight. Another study of 10 people found that high-fiber diets led to fewer but bigger farts, and a third study found that gases containing sulphur are the culprit of the world’s stinkiest farts. Two judges were tapped to rate the odor intensity of each toot, and we can only hope that they made it out alive.

Scientific literature also seems to support Collins’s advice to “let it go.” A 2010 paper on “Methane and the gastrointestinal tract” says methane, hydrogen sulfide, and other gases that are produced in the intestinal tract are mostly eliminated from the body via the anus or “expelled from the lungs.” Holding it in can lead to belching, flatulence, bloating, and pain. And in some severe cases, pouches can form along the wall of the colon and get infected, causing diverticulitis.

So go ahead and let it rip, just like nature intended—but maybe try to find an empty room first.

[h/t CBS Philadelphia]

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