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

iStock
iStock

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."

10 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine
Letsfit/Amazon

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

Buy it: Amazon

3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains
Eclipse/Amazon

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

Buy it: Amazon

4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock
JALL/Amazon

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

Buy it: Amazon

5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light
Philips/Amazon

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

Buy it: SlumberCloud

7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket
Baloo/Amazon

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

Buy it: Amazon 

10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band
Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

Buy it: Amazon

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The Meteoric Rise—and Tragic Fall—of NASA's Skylab

NASA // Public Domain
NASA // Public Domain

On May 14, 1973, NASA launched Skylab, the first American space station. It fell to earth six years later, burning up in the atmosphere on July 11, 1979.

Skylab itself was a heavily modified third stage of a Saturn V rocket—the same system we used to send Apollo missions to the moon. The station was huge, measuring more than 80 feet in length, with a 21-foot diameter. During launch, Skylab 1 suffered major damage to its solar array, which delayed the launch of the Skylab 2 crew (originally intended to launch the day after Skylab itself reached orbit). The Skylab 2 mission was modified to include repair work to the solar power system and installation of a solar heat shield, as the original one was lost during launch. The Skylab 2 crew launched on May 25, 1973.

The Skylab missions resulted in new information about long-term space habitation (including an awesome space shower). The first crew spent 28 days in space; the second crew more than doubled that at 59 days; and the final crew (Skylab 4) spent 84 days up there. That last record was not broken by an American for two decades. Skylab also focused on solar science, Earth science, and microgravity experiments.

Skylab was something of a bridge between the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs. Indeed, Skylab was supposed to be serviced (and its orbit boosted) by the first Shuttle, but it wasn't ready in time. Skylab's orbit decayed, eventually causing it to disintegrate and fall to Earth over the Indian Ocean on July 11, 1979. Chunks of the station made a bit of a fireworks display streaking through the atmosphere, and ultimately littered a swath of Australia. No injuries were reported from the falling debris, though media coverage of the reentry was intense.

Here's a short NASA documentary on Skylab, explaining the story of the station. Have a look:

If you'd like to relive the launch, here's live TV coverage from that day:

And if you'd like to learn more about its crash, and what it taught NASA moving forward, watch this:

This story has been updated for 2020.