Editor's choice: Violins, tectonics and stem cells


A round-up from the scientific and technical journals.


Violinist Ilya Kaler wears modified welder’s goggles to prevent him identifying his instrument in an experiment to see if musicians could tell a famous old Italian violin from a modern one. – Image courtesy of Stefan Avalos

A good ear for music

Old Italian violins, especially those made by the legendary Stradivari family, are renowned for their wonderful tone. So you’d think a group of virtuoso violin soloists would be able to pick one with their eyes closed. Not so. When scientists conducted a blind test in a concert hall, the musicians were unable to pick the sound of Stradivari instruments from new ones, and most said they preferred the new violins’ sound. The results challenge the “near-canonical” belief in the superiority of old Italian violins, the researchers say.

How Earth cracked up

A billion years or so after Earth’s crust hardened, it underwent a baffling change, slowly breaking into the large pieces we know as tectonic plates. US and French geologists have now explained why it happened here but not on Venus. Parts of our crust were under significant stress as the liquid mantle circulated beneath it. Simulating these conditions in the lab, the team showed that the Earth’s crust’s crystalline make-up slowly breaks up at these stress points, until the plate finally cracks. Venus, in contrast, is a hotter planet and the extra heat speeds up the process by which the broken crystals regrow, so crust damage quickly heals and cracks never form. A report of the findings can be found here.

Stem cell researcher stands by finding

Stem cell researcher Haruko Obokata from Japan's Riken Center for Developmental Biology has apologised for inexperience and “carelessness” in using the wrong images in her paper published in Nature. But Obokata stands by her findings that she can turn ordinary cells into stem cells by exposing them to acid, saying she would prove the results if she were allowed to. Obakata says she produced the STAP (stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency) cells more than 200 times and will appeal against a Riken decision to withdraw the research. Meanwhile, a Riken researcher and co-author on Obokata’s papers, Hitoshi Niwa, has said he is attempting to replicate the STAP experiments and expects they will take a year to complete.

  1. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/04/03/1323367111
  2. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nature13072.html
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