I’ve got my windows open today to let in some of the fine late spring air, which is filled with the sound of birdsong and a light rustling of the trees in our garden. Because I leave my old wooden shutters latched shut so the sun doesn’t glare off my computer screen, I can’t see outside.
If I listen, I can make out the ambient hum of traffic on the road at the other end of our village, the occasional distant plane on approach at the Geneva airport, all punctuated by the bells on the grazing sheep on one side, and on the other side, the next-door dog giving out a brief yap, which he only does if someone walks by on our road.
And then another neighbor rumbles past on his tractor, the walls shake slightly, and now I can hear him in the farm courtyard, tinkering on the thing with tools that chime like bells.
It’s my personal web of sound impressions.
Knowing our surroundings by virtue of sound and vibration is part of what we can do without much thought, and I suppose that’s true of many animals (and plants).
The extent of some creatures’ ability to interpret surroundings via vibration is an ongoing focus of research, and new study due to be published in Advanced Materials looks at just how finely-tuned an instrument a spider’s web can be.
The Oxford Silk Group fired lasers and bullets at spider silk to see how it vibrates and found that the silk – always known to be remarkably strong – can also be tuned to a variety of harmonics.
In The speed of sound in silk: Linking material performance to biological function, the study examines just how much information a spider can learn from the plucking of its silken strands, and further, that spiders can fine-tune their webs to optimize transmission of prey information as well as the approach of a prospective mate. The web vibrations can be played to indicate the web’s own intactness, echoing back to the spider in a song of building and necessary repair.
I had a recording of ancient Greek music on vinyl back in the 1980s, a weirdly soothing collection of short sound fragments that echoed through my college apartment.
I mention it only because there are no recordings, yet, of the spider silk music – but if there were, I imagine they’d sound a bit like those remembered scraps. I found this recording, which isn’t as haunting as what I remember, but will serve for the moment in my imagination of a spider sounding out its world with all eight limbs in nanometer vibrations.