Random Samples

Science  16 May 2008:
Vol. 320, Issue 5878, pp. 855

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    The strings of a helikon, a gadget invented by Ptolemy to probe musical scales, sounded last week for the first time in almost 2 millennia at the University of Cambridge in the U.K.

    Andrew Barker, a musicologist at the University of Birmingham, U.K., built the instrument from a description in Harmonics, Ptolemy's 2nd century treatise on the mathematics of music. Ancient scholars considered the study of harmonics vital in understanding the mathematical rules that they believed governed the universe. He unveiled it as part of Cambridge's Science of Musical Sound Project.

    Barker says the 1-meter-long wooden instrument with eight metal strings allows scientists to test “complete scales constructed on the basis of mathematical principles.” The helikon creates different pitches with a calibrated sliding bridge, which can be inserted diagonally to shorten strings to different lengths. Strings can also be moved crosswise to raise or lower the range of pitches. Barker, who showed how the adjustments produce different intervals when the gadget is plucked, admits that it's not designed for musicmaking. Still, he says he was delighted that it worked at all.


    Cambridge historian Torben Rees, a professional jazz singer, called Barker's presentation “a fascinating account of ancient thinking concerning harmonics.” Music, he says, was regarded as “the sensible expression of the order of the cosmos. This conception of the universe … was essentially the birth of mathematical physics.”



    A keratinocyte (left) inspired the red hand shape of the Red Hole (right), one of 300 works displayed at the Royal Albert Hall this month. The painting, by two 9-year-olds at St. Godric's RCVA Primary School in Durham, U.K., was a runner-up in Scopic, a contest for schoolchildren in London and County Durham to create art based on a favorite scientific image. “The Red Hole will consume anything, including satellites and novas, although its main meal is stars,” say its creators, Lakshmi Piette and Catherine Duffell. The project was cosponsored by the Medical Research Council, Royal Albert Hall, and Durham University.



    Ever since Ferdinand Magellan's fleet sailed around the world, historians have wondered why the great navigator took such an inefficient route across the Pacific. Two anthropologists have combined history, oceanography, and computer modeling to lay the blame on El Niño.

    After passing through the Strait of Magellan at the tip of South America in late November 1520, Magellan planned to sail to the Moluccas, the equatorial “Spice Islands” west of New Guinea. Instead, he made landfall on Guam, more than 1500 kilometers to the northeast.

    Why the detour? Scott M. Fitzpatrick of North Carolina State University in Raleigh and Richard Callaghan of the University of Calgary in Canada say computer simulations and historical accounts suggest that unusually calm weather, brought on by an El Niño event, allowed the ships to sail northward up the coast of Chile before heading west. Magellan had heard reports of a lack of food in the Moluccas—possibly due to drought and famines associated with El Niño—and may have wanted to reprovision the ship farther north before heading there, the authors suggest in an article in press in the Journal of Pacific History. “This could be the earliest historical record of an [El Niño] event,” Fitzpatrick says.

    “None of us could understand how [Magellan] managed to sail so far north, unless he simply had no idea where the Moluccas were,” says Micronesian historian Francis Hezel, director of the Micronesian Seminar in Micronesia. “This article at least furnishes us with a coherent explanation for what always seemed to me to be not much more than a drift voyage across the Pacific.”