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What could the natural diversity and beauty of plant leaves have in common with one of mankind’s greatest creative inventions, the violin? Much more than you might imagine.
Dan Chitwood, Ph.D., assistant member, Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, uses the tools of morphometrics to explore how leaf shapes are formed and what that means for a plant to grow and thrive, such as how the leaf architecture of a desert-adapted tomato species can survive with little water. His love of music, and his talent playing the viola, led him to use morphometric analysis to explore how musical instruments, particularly those designed by masters, evolved over time.
Similar to the big data crisis, Dr. Chitwood describes in his study “Imitation, genetic lineages, and time influenced the morphological evolution of the violin,” released in the journal PLOS ONE on October 8, how quantifying, and measuring phenotypes--whether the shape of violins or agronomically important plant traits--in a meaningful fashion can lead to resolving major problems of our time.
“There are many parallels between leaves and violins,” says Chitwood. “Both have beautiful shapes that are potentially functional, change over time, or result from mimicry. Shape is information that can tell us a story. Just as evolutionary changes in leaf shape inform us about mechanisms that ultimately determine plant morphology, the analysis of cultural innovations, such as violins, gives us a glimpse into the historical forces shaping our lives and creativity.”
Chitwood compiled data on the body shapes of more than 9,000 violins from over 400 years of design history using iconography data from auction houses. The dataset encompasses the most highly desirable violins, and those of historical importance, including violins designed by Giovanni Paolo Maggini, Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù, and Antonio Stradivari, as well as Stradivari copyists Nicolas Lupot, Vincenzo Panormo, and Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume.
Chitwood found that specific shape attributes differentiate the instruments, and these details strongly correlate with historical time. His linear discriminant analysis reveals luthiers who likely copied the outlines of their instruments from others, which historical accounts corroborate. Clustering images of averaged violin shapes places luthiers into four major groups, demonstrating a handful of discrete shapes predominate in most instruments.
As with all scientific papers, Chitwood’s article was rigorously peer-reviewed, in this case, by some of the world’s leading morphometrics experts. The critiques prior to publication led to improvements in the morphometric techniques used in the final analyses. Chitwood is now applying his improved methods to his plant research program at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.
“This is a fantastic example of how advances in one field can help advance a seemingly unrelated field,” said Chitwood. “I’ll be a happy scientist and musician if by understanding violin evolution this helps lead to improved crop plants that are more productive and sustainable.”
Learn more here.
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| ViolinmorphometricsgeneticsevolutionDan Chitwood