Tag Archives: music

Melodies divert droplets

So, today I’m revealing some the depths of my true chemistry geekiness. As I was poring over press releases, I found one from the University of Michigan that was fun– but probably also too geeky– to propose as a story idea: a microfluidic device that moves droplets based on sound waves.

First of all, some explanation: Microfluidic devices are tiny networks of channels that chemists and chemical engineers are building as ways to mix and recombine a variety of chemicals. One of these days this technology will probably run all sorts of diagnostic devices– the sorts of gizmos that might sequence your DNA and scan your system for all sorts of diseases by splitting up a tiny drop of your blood.

However, part of the problem with these devices, as the University of Michigan researchers note, is that though the systems of channels are often tiny, the devices that you hook to them to move the droplets around often aren’t. So they built a system that would move the drops that alter how the droplets move based on sound frequencies. So, the melody choreographs the droplet movement.

I guess it could make for a noisy lab, but, geek that I am, I can’t help but enjoy the video of the droplet dance.

a microfluidic device (Micronit Microfluidics)
a microfluidic device (Micronit Microfluidics)

A rackett– low sound packed small

Like other double reeds, the rackett produced by this instrument probably decreases as the player’s skill increases.

When I was working on my article about carbon fiber instruments, I traded emails with a researcher  in musical acoustics in Australia. He saw my blog post about Papalini’s bass clarinet and said: If you’re interested in low instruments in a small package, you should take a look at the rackett.

Baroque Rackett (image source, Godfrey, Wikipedia, 2009)
Baroque Rackett (image source, Godfrey, Wikipedia, 2009)

So, here it is. It’s a Renaissance bassoon-ish instrument, and there are 9 parallel bores packed into that instrument to create the length for a low pitch. However, it looks like the fingering is pretty strange, even for a bassoon. (My band director in middle school tried to convince me to switch from the flute to the modern bassoon. In retrospect, it might have been a good idea- more opportunities for bassoon players. But two days of playing an instrument that sounded like a dying cow in my hands was probably all my family could take. Double reeds and a dizzying array of thumb keys– 8 for the left and 4 for the right, were more than I had patience for. My sister had more patience than I did in that respect, but played the oboe). But I do love the low sound of a bassoon played well, and this one could fit in your pocket.

The rackett apparently fell out of favor, possibly for practical and rather disgusting reasons. If this description from Diabolus in Musica is accurate, I can completely see why.

If you’re currently eating your lunch, stop reading now. The rackett survived as a useful pocket bass instrument until the eighteenth century. Heaven forbid that any musical instrument should retain any semblance of guts, so when the great and glorious shawm and curtal were “refined” into the emasculated oboe and bassoon, they tried it with the rackett as well, but came unstuck. To get a “polite” tone, they had to narrow the bore, which was already narrow. That would be fine, except that they tended to play the things after dinner, and bits of semi-chewed food would find their way down the reed and into the narrow bits, eventually clogging the instrument solid. Now, unclogging a rackett is a technician’s job, so the beast would be put on a shelf until the local instrument maker could look at it. If that shelf happened to be in the sun, or above a fireplace, ideal breeding conditions for bacteria would ensue, and pressure would build up in the clogged tubes. There are a supposedly a number of attested cases of shelved racketts exploding without warning, emitting splinters and noxious odours in equal quantity.

Blech!! I’d like to hear one, but only before dinner.


Dancing parrots (and elephants, too)

No, it’s not some kind of YouTube ruse or even a clever trick. Some animals have rhythm according to papers published this week in Current Biology (this one and this one). So, yes, the science is cool, but when there’s a fun video to go with it? Even better.

We’re a parrot-loving household (a nearly 7-year-old Senegal parrot), but we also have a vested interest in elephants these days (my husband’s dissertation research). Unfortunately, no video of dancing elephants :(.


polymer science meets art and a high school mea culpa

photo by Kevin Sprague

My most recent story (my first for Scientific American) combined all the elements of what I love about my work– the chance to meet interesting people, learn and experience new things, and allow my eclectic interests to co-mingle, at least for a little while. In other words, this former chamber musician got to flex my chemistry muscles, learn about carbon fiber stringed instruments and even do a little firsthand reporting at a chamber music concert.

Synergy is powerful. I happened to call Louie Leguia just a few days before a concert on the Upper West Side. The instruments are fascinating– oddly light, slick, and yes, plastic, though that word makes them sound cheap in a way that these instruments are not. Their sound– at least in the hands of pros– is both rich and expansive. His idea came from his hobby, and I had the good fortune to get to combine my work with an opportunity to feed my lifelong love of music.

And for an hour or so during the concert, my mind drifted back to playing piano (and flute) in chamber music groups while I was in high school. I lacked the patience to memorize music and solo performance fried my teenage nerves, though I did it anyway. But chamber music was a pleasure– less exposed, collaborative, and community-building. The cellist I played with most often was a childhood friend from my neighborhood, Iris, a far better cellist than I was either pianist or flutist. Last I knew, she’d gone to Eastman School of Music, but I lost track of her after high school graduation.

But, I wish Iris had a carbon fiber cello in 1992, when we both played at our high school graduation. We’d each auditioned for the privilege of playing at the ceremony in the O’Connell Center, the acoustic death trap that mostly serves as the  basketball arena at the University of Florida. Somehow, after playing my flute solo, I managed to knock over her cello, which gave a hollow wooden gasp after it fell the 18 inches to the floor, fortunately unharmed, echoed by the collective gasp of the friends and family looking on.

I covered my embarrassment in the moment, but I’m still mortified by my klutziness. So, Iris, wherever you are, here’s another apology, nearly 17 years later. Writing about sturdy cellos, I couldn’t help but think of you.


Curvy clarinet

Watching the Inauguration on TV today, this former chamber musician and band geek had to give a shout out for the John Williams piece performed by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Itzhak Perlman, pianist Gabriela Montero and clarinetist Anthony McGill. I performed in chamber groups on both flute and piano during my high school piano recitals. Beethoven’s clarinet trio (I was on piano) remains a highlight.

Clarinets came to my mind again last Friday as I wandered through the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a friend. I’d never explored the collection of musical instruments before, and I snapped a photo of this unusual clarinet with my camera phone.

This bass clarinet was made by Nicola Papalini in the early 19th century. The curvy design helped them scrunch the spacing that was needed between the keys for the low register of this instrument. Papalini carved the instrument in halves and then assembled the finished instrument. It’s a pretty nifty art object, but I’d love to hear it played.

Clarinet acoustics are based on a closed pipe—the reed and mouthpiece on one end mean that the sound waves encounter that end of the pipe as effectively closed off compared to my favorite woodwind, the flute. That structure effectively doubles the length of the bore, which allows the clarinet to achieve those rich low tones.

Just like the chamber music, I hope that the history made today will permeate, rebound and echo in the days, weeks and years to come.