Leonardo da Vinci's forgotten musical invention

The viola organista was dreamt up by Leonardo da Vinci but until recently it had never been built. Now, a Polish instrument-maker has painstakingly created the first ever example and it sounds remarkable.

The instrument wasn’t built during Leonardo da Vinci’s lifetime, and it was only in 2013 that Polish instrument-maker Sławomir Zubrzycki built the first example.

The unusual instrument is a hybrid of elements from a harpsichord, an organ and a viola da gamba.

Meet India's beautiful technicolor squirrels [via Nina Reznick]


We're used to squirrels that are gray or a coppery red and relatively small. Sure, we may come across a squirrel that has had a few too many acorns, but that's about it.

This isn't the case in India, however. The country is home to a very colorful and large squirrel species, Ratufa indica, otherwise known as the Indian giant squirrel or the Malabar giant squirrel.

Just take a look!


That's some tail!

These squirrels, native to India, sport a colorful patchwork of fur, with colors ranging from beige and tan to shades of brown and rust. The squirrels' bodies can grow up to 14 inches (36 centimeters) or so, while their tails can stretch on for 2 feet That's more than 3 feet of squirrel! By comparison, your run-of-the-mill gray squirrel typically grows to about 22 inches, including the tail.

And body length isn't the only thing that sets these squirrels apart. They can weigh up to 5 pounds (2.2 kilograms), or about the average weight of a Chihuahua. Gray squirrels only weigh in at 1.5 pounds, at most.


These colorful squirrels likely took root around 30 to 35 million years ago, following a diversification in squirrel species.
Still, you can only find them in India, and they are shy, wary creatures. This makes them difficult to see, even for seasoned squirrel seekers.
"They are pretty shy," Pizza Ka Yee Chow, squirrel expert and research fellow at Hokkaido University, told The Dodo. "One of my friends who lives in India shared with me that the best way to see these giant squirrels is to climb up on a tree, stay very quiet and wait for them to emerge from their [nest]."
Hopefully they'll get hungry while you're up there so you'll catch a glimpse!

It all started with a bang, but the universe may not be expanding after all [via Dave Davis]

Theoretical physicist Christof Wetterich publishes paper 'a Universe without expansion'

The Andromeda Galaxy, a spiral galaxy approximately 2.5 million light-years from Earth
The Andromeda Galaxy, a spiral galaxy approximately 2.5 million light-years from Earth ( Rex Features )

A theoretical physicist looks set to disrupt textbook concepts of cosmology, after producing a paper outlining his theory that the universe is not expanding after all.

The most widely accepted theory of the universe centres on the notion that the world started with a big bang, and has been expanding ever since.

But Christof Wetterich, a theoretical physicist at the university of Heidelberg, has produced a paper theorising that the universe is not expanding, but the mass of all of its particles are instead increasing.

His theory could potentially help examine the more problematic aspects of the big bang theory, such as the ‘singularity’ present during the big bang.

In his paper: A Universe Without Expansion, Wettrich discusses a cosmological model "where the universe shrinks rather than expands during the radiation and matter dominated periods".

His paper was published on the arXiv preprint server. In his abstract, he writes: "Only dimensionless ratios as the distance between galaxies divided by the atom radius are observable. The cosmological increase of this ratio can also be attributed to shrinking atoms."

In the 1920s, astronomers such as Georges Lemaitre and Edwin Hubble analysed the light emitted or absorbed by atoms, which appeared in a spectrum of characteristic colours, or frequencies.

When matter moved away, they discovered that galaxies exhibited a shift to the red, lower frequency part of the spectrum.

After observing that most galaxies exhibit a red shift that became greater for more distant galaxies, they theorised that the universe was expanding.

However, Wetterich highlights that this light emitted by atoms is also determined by masses of the elementary particles, and in particular, their electrons.

If the mass of an atom increases, it emits more energetic photons. If the particles were to become lighter, frequencies would become redshifted.

Writing in Nature News, Jon Cartwright explains: “Because the speed of light is finite, when we look at distant galaxies we are looking backwards in time — seeing them as they would have been when they emitted the light that we observe.

“If all masses were once lower, and had been constantly increasing, the colours of old galaxies would look redshifted in comparison to current frequencies, and the amount of redshift would be proportionate to their distances from Earth.

“Thus, the redshift would make galaxies seem to be receding even if they were not.”

For Wetterich, the universe still expands rapidly during a temporary period called inflation, but before this inflation, the big bang no longer contains a ‘singularity’ where the density of the universe would be infinite. Instead, Cartwright continues, “the big bang stretches out in the past over an essentially infinite period of time".

“The current cosmos could be static or even beginning to contract,” he adds.

Wetterich’s paper has not yet been peer reviewed but has been received with both interest and scepticism by other cosmologists in the field.

“I think it’s fascinating to explore this alternative representation,” Hongsheng Zhao, a cosmologist at the University of St Andrews told Nature News. “His treatment seems rigorous enough to be entertained.”

However, Niayesh Afshordi, an astrophysicist at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Canada told the journal he "remained to be convinced about the advantage, or novelty, of this picture."

Unfortunately, the plausibility of this concept is currently impossible to test, but Wetterich argues it could be a useful concept to use when considering different cosmological models.

To Save the Sound of a Stradivarius, a Whole City Must Keep Quiet

The “Vesuvius” violin, made by Antonio Stradivari in 1727, in the Museo del Violino in Cremona, Italy. The museum is assisting with an ambitious recording project to preserve the sound of Stradivarius instruments for future generations.

The people of Cremona are unusually sensitive to noise right now. The police have cordoned off streets in the usually bustling city center and traffic has been diverted. During a recent news conference, the city’s mayor, Gianluca Galimberti, implored Cremona’s citizens to avoid any sudden and unnecessary sounds. is home to the workshops of some of the world’s finest instrument makers, including Antonio Stradivari, who in the 17th and 18th centuries produced some of the finest violins and cellos ever made. 

The city is getting behind an ambitious project to digitally record the sounds of the Stradivarius instruments for posterity, as well as others by Amati and Guarneri del Gesù, two other famous Cremona craftsmen. And that means being quiet.

A Stradivarius violin, viola or cello represents the pinnacle of sound engineering, and nobody has been able to replicate their unique tones.

Fausto Cacciatori, the curator of Cremona’s Museo del Violino, a museum devoted to musical instruments that is assisting with the project, said that each Stradivarius had “its own personality.” But, he added, their distinctive sounds “will inevitably change,” and could even be lost within just a few decades.

“It’s part of their life cycle,” Mr. Cacciatori said. “We preserve and restore them, but after they reach a certain age, they become too fragile to be played and they ‘go to sleep,’ so to speak.”

The instruments at the Museo del Violino also include violins from the Amati and Guarneri del Gesù workshops.

The instruments at the Museo del Violino also include violins from the Amati and Guarneri del Gesù workshops.Credit Isabella de Maddalena for The New York Times

So that future generations won’t miss out on hearing the instruments, three sound engineers are producing the “Stradivarius Sound Bank” — a database storing all the possible tones that four instruments selected from the Museo del Violino’s collection can produce.

One of the engineers, Mattia Bersani, said that the sounds in the database could be manipulated with software to produce new recordings when the tone of the original instruments degraded. Musicians of the future would be able to “record a sonata with an instrument that will no longer function,” he said.

“This will allow my grandchildren to hear what a Strad sounded like,” said Leonardo Tedeschi, a former D.J. who came up with the idea for the project. “We are making immortal the finest instrument ever crafted.”

Throughout January, four musicians playing two violins, a viola and a cello will work through hundreds of scales and arpeggios, using different techniques with their bows, or plucking the strings. Thirty-two ultrasensitive microphones set up in the museum’s auditorium will capture the sounds.

“It’ll be physically and mentally challenging for them,” said Thomas Koritke, a sound engineer from Hamburg, Germany, who is leading the project. “They’ll have to play hundreds of thousands of individual notes and transitions for eight hours a day, six days a week, for more than a month.”

Organizing the project had also taken a long time, Mr. Koritke added. “It took us a few years to convince the museum to let us use 500-year-old stringed instruments,” he said. Then they had to find top musicians who knew the instruments inside out. Then the acoustics of the auditorium, which was designed around the sound of the instruments, had to be studied, as well.




Gabriele Schiavi, 31, playing in Auditorium Giovanni Arvedi, the concert hall of the Museo del Violino, in a recording for the “Stradivarius Sound Bank.”Credit Isabella de Maddalena for The New York Times

In 2017, the engineers thought their project was finally ready to get underway. But a soundcheck revealed a major flaw.

“The streets around the auditorium are all made of cobblestone, an auditory nightmare,” Mr. Tedeschi said. The sound of a car engine, or a woman walking in high heels, produces vibrations that run underground and reverberate in the microphones, making the recording worthless, he explained. “It was either shutting down the entire area or having the project not seeing the light of day,” Mr. Tedeschi said.

Luckily for the engineers, Cremona’s mayor is also the president of the Stradivarius Foundation, the municipal body that owns the Museo del Violino. He allowed the streets around the museum to be closed for five weeks, and appealed to people in the city to keep it down.

“We are the only city in the world that preserves both the instruments and their voices,” Mr. Galimberti said. “This is an extraordinary project that looks at the future...