Stradivari Violins May Not Sound Better After All

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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.”

Pandemic vs. Epidemic: What’s the Difference?

If scientists can't develop a vaccine for a new virus quickly enough, an epidemic can turn into a pandemic.
If scientists can't develop a vaccine for a new virus quickly enough, an epidemic can turn into a pandemic.
doble-d/iStock via Getty Images

As the new coronavirus continues to spread around the world, the words epidemic and pandemic are showing up in news reports more often than they usually do. While the terms are closely related, they don’t refer to the same thing.

As the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC) explains on its website, “an epidemic occurs when an infectious disease spreads rapidly to many people.” Usually, what precedes an epidemic is an outbreak, or “a sudden rise in the number of cases of a disease.” An outbreak can affect a single community or several countries, but it’s on a much smaller scale than an epidemic.

If an epidemic can’t be contained and keeps expanding its reach, public health officials might start calling it a pandemic, which means it’s affected enough people in different areas of the world to be considered a global outbreak. In short, a pandemic is a worldwide epidemic. It infects more people, causes more deaths, and can also have widespread social and economic repercussions. The spread of the Spanish influenza from 1918 to 1919, which killed between 20 and 40 million people around the world, was a pandemic; more recently, the H1N1 influenza created a pandemic in 2009.

Here’s where it gets a little tricky: There’s no cut-and-dried classification system for outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics. Based on the definitions above, it might seem like the current coronavirus disease, now called COVID-19, falls into the pandemic category already—according to a map from the World Health Organization (WHO), there are more than 80,000 confirmed cases in 34 countries, and nearly 2700 people have died from the disease. It’s also beginning to impact travel, stock markets, and the global economy as a whole. But WHO maintains that although the situation has the potential to become a pandemic, it’s still an epidemic for now.

“It really is borderline semantics, to be honest with you,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN earlier this month. “I think you could have people arguing each end of it. Pandemics mean different things to different people.”

[h/t APIC.org]

Fat Bats Might Be Resistant to Deadly White-Nose Syndrome

Penn State, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Penn State, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Good news for flying mammals: chubby little brown bats might be genetically resistant to white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that’s killed more than 5.5 million bats since it was first documented in 2006 [PDF]. A new study in the journal Scientific Reports describes three genetic adaptations in the bats that could protect them from the pathogen.

Little brown bats (Myotis lucifugus), common in Canada and the eastern United States, are especially susceptible to white-nose syndrome. According to lead author Giorgia G. Auteri, a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan, white-nose syndrome kills bats by disrupting their hibernation cycles.

“When they’re in hibernation in the winter, they’re not meant to be waking up. They’re supposed to be asleep,” Auteri tells Mental Floss. “But this fungus grows on them, and it causes the bats to keep waking up during hibernation. And because they’re waking up when they shouldn’t be, they’re running out of fat reserves too early.”

But while white-nose syndrome has devastated bat populations in North America, not all infected bats die from the disease—some recover. Auteri wanted to find out what made the survivors so special.

Auteri and her team compared the genetic makeup of nine surviving and 29 non-surviving little brown bats from northern Michigan. They discovered that survivors share three important genetic distinctions. “One is involved with fat metabolism,” she says. “And another is involved with regulating when the bats wake up from hibernation. And the third gene is involved in their echolocation ability, in their sonar for hunting insects.”

The results make sense, Auteri says. Because white-nose syndrome interrupts bats’ hibernation schedules, bats with genes that relate to more optimal fat storage (i.e., they’re fatter) and better hibernation regulation (i.e., they sleep longer) are more likely to survive the disease.

Auteri’s research could help scientists and conservationists find ways to preserve little brown bat populations. Besides being adorable, little brown bats also play an important ecological role as predators of insects like mosquitoes, moths, and other pests that are destructive to crops and forests.

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