Scientists Turn Spider Webs Into Spider Harps To Hear Spider ‘Voices’

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Spiders don’t have great eyesight. They use the vibrations from their web to detect what’s happening in their environment. Spiders can’t speak, either. So to communicate, they use their web, like a complex set of external vocal cords. Now, scientists have turned a spider web into a virtual reality simulation so humans can experience those same vibrations as sound. Some of the applications for this type of unconventional research include: 

  1. Determining when our ears give us better information than “empirical observation’ in practicing the scientific method.
  2. Forwarding the movement to turn nature’s structures into musical instruments while training our aesthetic palate to appreciate nonhuman compositions.
  3. Expanding STEM (science, engineering technology and math) outreach to creative audiences.
  4. Compiling a playlist of organic sound signatures that could be sent to space in an effort to connect with extraterrestrial life.
  5. And, of course, communicating with spiders.

Markus J. Buehler is a principal investigator at The Laboratory for Atomistic and Molecular Mechanics (LAMM) in the School of Engineering at MIT. His lab joined forces with artist Tomás Saraceno to “sonify web structures.” The team presented their spider harp today at the spring meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS Spring 2021).

These harps can be experienced in the videos below.

Tuning into another perspective

“We used the physics of string, essentially,” says Buehler. “Same laws you use to predict the vibrations of a guitar string or violin or piano string. Because this instrument isn’t tuned according to any human tuning system, it sounds very different…It’s a different perspective, a different reference system. Spiders live in this environment where they use the web as a giant sensor, essentially, to orient themselves. They catch prey in their web, but they also use the web to communicate with the environment, to detect signals in the environment. They speak to other spiders through vibrations.”

There are different sounds for different spider experiences: a fly trapped in the web, courtship, and sounds for testing the integrity of the web are part of a vast repertoire of spider harmonies. “You might have seen other labs and musicians doing sonification,” Buehler points out that his lab is doing something different than other projects in this space. “We utilize the actual molecular dynamics, the actual molecular motions of the spider silk threads to induce sound and make them audible.”

The team is working on a study exploring the boundaries between the kinds of compositions we humans create from synthetic instruments, and our own conventional tuning, and compositions created from instruments that have been crafted and tuned by other biological beings, like spiders. “Basically [we] use the tuning that a spider has created for its own purpose. We’re asking the question, what can we do musically there? And how can we make that into something that we can recognize and find aesthetically interesting?”  

How to make spider harps

Buehler’s lab studies a variety of proteins, including spider silk proteins. They developed a method to scan a three-dimensional web. First, they had a spider build a web in their lab. They then used a laser scanning tomography method to capture hundreds of thousands of images (slices of the web) and assemble a three-dimensional image. Using simple physical relationships, they correlated the length of the string and tensions with certain frequencies. “We pull the web and we study what the pulling apart of the web and breaking it sounds like. As you pull it, of course, the strings will be in the higher tension and the frequency of the vibrations will increase as well,” says Buehler. “We have a model and we use physical laws of how strings vibrate to compute accurately what these vibrations sound like.”

Fluent in spider

The next step in this research is to play the sounds back to the spider to see whether the researchers can elicit a reaction from a spider. The team used a similar technology to Google or Apple’s synthetic speech generators that simulate human voices. “We’ve used these kinds of techniques to generate spider vibration.” I ask him: “you speak spider web?” He corrects me, “We speak spider dialect.”

Empirical observation using ears instead of eyes

Observation is the cornerstone of scientific research. We depend heavily on the eyes for observation. But seeing isn’t the only sense that can observe. Sometimes seeing isn’t even the best sense for observation. “In the case of proteins or DNA language or amino acid sequences,” says Buehler, “that’s an area where listening opens a whole new perspective. When we look at sequences of proteins that are thousands of letters long, pages long, there’s no way you can look at it and make sense of it.”

In a study published last year, he discovered something interesting looking at COVID-19 variants. By sonifying the COVID-19 spike proteins in some of the variants, “we were actually able to tie the sounds of these variants to some measures of lethality and infectiousness.” By making audible the COVID-19 spike proteins in some of the variants, the team concluded that “the way these proteins move and vibrate is really important to how they infect cells.” 

Should we send recordings of spider music into space? He’d go smaller

I ask if he would like spider web recordings included on the next golden record launched into space. “If I had to pick the one thing to send out to space and communicate,” says Buehler, “I would probably pick some of those more universal languages, which are proteins. Some of the sounds of proteins and DNA and structures like this.”  Yes, Buehler’s been sonifying proteins.

STEM and the arts

Buehler hopes this work will entice the next generation of artists and musicians to explore STEM. He feels the kind of thinking that artists engage in is vital to STEM. Even the way scientists and engineers talk about physical laws and physical constraints might be confining and perpetuate risk aversion. Artists are subject to those same physical laws and constraints. But artists consider it a fundamental part of their practice to break rules and push against constraints. 

Buehler also thinks music is a great way for STEM to reach a broader audience, the general public, or young people who are interested in nature. He considers it a priority to bring people into science who wouldn’t naturally gravitate toward science. He believes sonification makes subjects like physics, biology and chemistry more accessible.

“People say music is a universal language, but it is true. I mean, you can really connect with people around the world.”

Video of the 3D spider web virtual reality experience:

Sounds of a spider web during construction:

Video of web sonification, scanning through web:

Stretching and breaking of the web:

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