COLLEGE STATION, Jan. 4, 2006 – A lifetime of work studying how Stradivarius made his perfect violins recently earned a retired Texas A&M University professor high acclaim from an unlikely group -- the top physicists of Japan.
Biochemist Joseph Nagyvary, professor emeritus at Texas A&M who has spent 30 years researching Stradivarius violins and their composition, was awarded a gold medal from the Japanese Society of Applied Physics before 1,200 of its members in Tokyo’s Opera City Hall, the largest scientific meeting ever held in Japan. Nagyvary was invited to speak and deliver the keynote address before the group in conjunction with the Einstein Centennial Celebration, the last event of the World Year of Physics meeting held last Dec.13.
Nagyvary concluded decades ago that the chemicals used to treat a Stradivarius violin – not necessarily the way it was constructed – were the keys to its unique sound. Varnish, glues, wood preservatives and fillers used on the violin led to its pristine tone – and today’s high price tag.
Antonio Stradivari made about 1,200 violins in his lifetime (1644 to 1737), but only about 600 remain today. They range in price from $2 million to $10 million each, depending on several factors, among them who the previous owner was.
Nagyvary’s research led him to try to and duplicate the sound of a Stradivarius, and the violins he has produced – called a ‘Nagyvarius’ – have been praised by many of the world’s top violinists. Following a 30-minute presentation in Japan, Nagyvary’s violin was played by Japanese musician Mariko Senju, who gave the instrument her highest endorsement.
“She told the audience there that it was equal in sound to a Stradivarius and it spoke easily like an old violin,” Nagyvary says.
A Japanese panel of physicists also performed acoustical testing of the new violin before the live audience and found it to be excellent, he adds.
“The evening was one of the greatest moments in my career. The Japanese have always had a fascination with Einstein. He visited the country in the 1920s and was immediately well-liked there.
“Einstein played the violin every day. Many Japanese physicists know this, and some of the older ones there knew him personally, and that’s why I was invited and gave my presentation. They believed Einstein would have enjoyed my explanation of the violin.”
Nagyvary says the gold medal represents a lifetime achievement award for the discovery of nanocomposites in the varnish of a Stradivarius violin.
The professor, who retired in 2003, is still conducting research on Stradivarius violins and expects to have a major paper dealing with the first chemical analysis of Stradivarius wood published in one of the world’s leading journals in the next few months. He has also ventured into the business of violin production with his company, Nagyvary Violins.
“The Japanese treated me like royalty,” he says.
“I was told I got the same silk house coat they gave to Colin Powell (former secretary of state) a few years ago. Their hospitality was incredible.
“The entire trip was so far the peak, the heyday of my life. I was thinking the entire time, this is not a bad way to spend retirement, is it? Here is my wisdom for all: it is good to peak late in life.”
By Keith Randall, firstname.lastname@example.org
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