Apr 15, 2021
MIT scientists translated spider webs into music. It could help us talk to them.
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CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts -- Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have turned spider webs into music -- creating an eerie soundtrack that could help them better understand how the arachnids spin their complex creations and even how they communicate.
The MIT team worked with Berlin-based artist Tomás Saraceno to take two-dimensional laser scans of a spider web, which were stitched together and converted into a mathematical model that could recreate the web in 3D in virtual reality.
"Even though the web looks really random, there actually are a lot of internal structures and you can visualize them and you can look at them, but it's really hard to grasp for the human imagination or human brain to understand all these structural details," said MIT engineering professor Markus Buehler, who presented the work on Monday at a virtual meeting of the American Chemical Society.
Listening to the music while moving through the VR spider web lets you see and hear these structural changes and gives a better idea of how spiders see the world, he told CNN.
"Spiders have very keen vibrational sensors, they use vibrations as a way to orient themselves, to communicate with other spiders and so the idea of thinking literally like a spider would experience the world was something that was very obvious to us as spider material scientists," Buehler said.
Spiders are able to build their webs without scaffolding or supports, so having a better idea of how they work could lead to the development of advanced new 3D printing techniques, he said.
They scanned the web while the spider was building it and Buehler compared it to a stringed instrument that changes as the structure becomes more complex.
"While you're playing the guitar, suddenly you're going to have new strings appear and emerge and grow," he said.
Buehler said they've recorded the vibrations spiders create during different activities, such as building a web, courtship signals and communicating with other spiders, and are using artificial intelligence to create synthetic versions.
"We're beginning to perhaps be able to speak the language of a spider," he said. "The hope is that we can then play these back to the web structure to enhance the ability to communicate with the spider and perhaps induce the spider to act in a certain way, to respond to the signals in a certain way."
He said that work is still in progress and that they've had to shut down their lab because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Buehler has been interested in the connection between music and materials on the molecular level for years and has used similar techniques to show the subtle differences between the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines and between two different variants of the Covid-19 virus (you'll hear one through your left speaker and the other through the right).
In addition to the scientific value, Buehler said the webs are musically interesting and that you can hear the melodies the spider creates during construction.
"It's unusual and eerie and scary, but ultimately beautiful," he said.
Members of the team have done live musical performances by playing and manipulating the VR web, while musicians jam along on human instruments.
"The reason why I did that is I wanted to be able to transfer information really from the spider perspective, which is very atonal and weird and spooky, if you wish, to something that is more human," Buehler said.
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Virginia police hope to solve cold homicide cases by distributing playing cards featuring photos of victims to prison inmates
"Not every tip received leads to resolution of a case, but someone usually knows something," Zmuda said in a press release. "Within Kansas correctional facilities and jails, we have segments of our population who want to do something good, perhaps atone for past mistakes, and they may have information about unsolved cases."
In Virginia, the Richmond City Justice Center is piloting the playing cards program, so the cards feature only Richmond-area cases. Richmond Chief of Police Gerald Smith hopes that the cards will help bring closure to grieving families and the community.
"Families of loved ones who were taken from our community deserve closure and we’ve seen this be an effective resource in other jurisdictions,” Smith said. “We are proud to participate in this endeavor as this is a creative method for generating interest and information on pending cases that could help generate new leads."
The press release states that, in addition to information about the victims, the cards include tip line information so that inmates who recognize a victim or can offer any leads can report what they know.
Any inmate who helps solve a case will receive "a reward," the statement promises, though it is unclear what that reward might be.
Below is a short news segment on the playing cards, courtesy of NBC12 Richmond: