Spider silk is turning out to be a remarkably versatile material. Aside from having a higher heat conductivity than any other organic matter and proteins for inserting genes into cells, strings from a spider have also been found to have a very high tensile strength. One researcher in Japan has studied this property of spider silk for decades, and recently unveiled a new application for it by weaving together thousands of strands of spider filaments and using them as violin strings.
It's not very often that a spider researcher and violinist finds a way to combine the two passions - in fact Dr. Shigeyoshi Osaki of Japan's Nara Medical University is most likely the first. Osaki has studied spider silk for 35 years and has spent the past ten developing a method to create violin strings from the unique material. Specifically, the violin strings were created using dragline silk, which spiders use to dangle from hanging objects (as opposed to the silk they use to construct webs). First, Osaki developed a method for harvesting long strands of dragline silk from the Nephila maculata spider. He then took 3,000 to 5,000 of these strands and twisted them in one direction to create a bundle. Finally, he twisted three of these bundles together in the opposite direction to form each string.
Surprisingly, the strings turned out to have a higher tensile strength than common nylon strings, though are still not as strong as traditional gut strings. Looking at cross-sections under an electron microscope, Osaki discovered that the twisting the strings had altered the shape of the individual filaments, making them more polygonal than round. This allows the strands to pack more tightly together and increase their overall strength.
More importantly though, this property allows for a unique sound, as the spider strings produce a different timbre (or sound quality) than any other material available. The sounds seems to come from the strings' tendency to reverberate higher harmonics than the usual steel or nylon strings. The strength of the silk could also allow for thinner strings at the same pitch to be more responsive, allowing for quicker notes.
As interesting as the spider silk strings are though, they are only in the prototype stage and would be much too expensive to sell to the average violinist. Osaki is however still looking into ways to produce larger quantities of spider silk for more violin strings and has submitted his findings on the strings to an American physics journal.
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