Good (spider) vibrations

The fascinating properties of spider webs could now be explored in an entirely new dimension: through music.

The experience could offer not only new musical inspiration but also insights into how spiders create their masterpieces, according to scientists who are presenting their findings at the online Spring meeting of the American Chemical Society from 5–16 April.

“The spider lives in an environment of vibrating strings,” says lead investigator Markus Buehler, from MIT, US. “They don’t see very well, so they sense their world through vibrations, which have different frequencies.”

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Cross-sectional images (shown in different colours) of a spider web were combined into this 3D image and translated into music. Credit: Isabelle Su and Markus Buehler

His team notes that mapping out the structure and properties of the fine, microscopic 3D webs has proven challenging until now.

To throw a new perspective on it, Buehler and colleagues scanned a natural spider web with a 3D laser to capture 2D cross-sections which they translated into its 3D structure using computer algorithms.

“This network provides a model that contains all of the structural and topological features of the porous regions of a 3D web with high fidelity,” they write, “and when combined with a mechanical model of silk materials, allows us to simulate and predict the mechanical response of a 3D web.”

Applying different sound frequencies to the web’s strands, the team created notes to generate melodies using “data sonification”. Then they devised a harp-like instrument and played the spider web music in several live performances.

They liken the process of creating a web of music comprised of melody, rhythm, harmony and chords to nature’s creation of complex proteins from simple amino acids.

The scientists also created a virtual reality setup so people could experience the web visually and audibly.

“The virtual reality environment is really intriguing because your ears are going to pick up structural features that you might see but not immediately recognise,” says Buehler. “By hearing it and seeing it at the same time, you can really start to understand the environment the spider lives in.”

To explore how spiders create their webs, the team scanned a web while under construction, converting each stage into music with different sounds.

“The sounds our harp-like instrument makes change during the process, reflecting the way the spider builds the web,” says Buehler. “So, we can explore the temporal sequence of how the web is being constructed in audible form.”

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