X-Rays Re-Create 307 Year-Old Violin
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NPR Staff
Wednesday, November 30, 2011 at 1:45 PM
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This image, derived from the OsiriX DICOM image viewer, is a single frame from a 3-D volume rendered movie of the 1704 Stradivari Betts violin.
This image, derived from the OsiriX DICOM image viewer, is a single frame from a 3-D volume rendered movie of the 1704 Stradivari Betts violin.
Courtesy of RSNA.org

It all started with a gunshot and a love for an original Stradivari Betts violin.

Dr. Steven Sirr has been known to draw his bow across the strings at the office...just on slow days of course. Several years ago, he decided to marry his two passions: CAT scans (also known as X-ray) and violins. But not just any violin — a 307 year-old Stradivarius, one of the most prized instruments in the world. Sirr then took it one step further by collaborating with a few violin makers to build their own Stradivarius using the scans.

It all started with a gunshot.

"I was supervising three residents in the county hospital where I worked in Minneapolis, Minnesota and it was a very boring weekend, so I brought my violin in to practice," says Sirr in an interview with NPR's Guy Raz. "It was a gunshot victim that came into the CT scanner. One of the residents banged on the door and wanted me to look at the CT scan and I had carried my violin down to the scanner and put it on the table next to the scanner. So when the patient was CT-scanned and went to surgery, I turned around, saw my violin and I scanned it."

Sirr says he "was amazed at the anatomy." But eventually, he wanted to scan a Stradivarius violin, an instrument worth millions of dollars, and convinced the Library of Congress to use theirs. It even had the original label from Antonio Stradivari inside the body.

"The Library was involved in a two-week project in Oberlin, Ohio, this past summer, and at that time we were able to CT-scan the original Betts violin that was made in 1704," says Sirr.

After the violin had been scanned, Sirr took the files to 10-year violin maker Steve Rossow, who made a CNC machine built to carve violins,

"And I took the files directly from the CT scanner, put it into a form that his computer could read," says Sirr. "Then with [Rossow's] machine, he was able to actually carve out in extremely high accuracy the front and back plate of the Stradivarius violin and the side pieces, and the neck and the scroll of the 1704 Stradivarius."

But there are certain aspects of the Stradivarius that can't be captured, no matter how many scans you take.

"Every violin is completely different based on the wood quality," says Sirr. "We try to match the density of the wood from the CT scan. We look at the grain pattern from the original and try to get a similar vein pattern."

Sirr would like to one day put this technology and these violins on the market, "especially since the latest Strad that was sold this past summer was sold for almost 16 million dollars, which is well out of the range of any modern living violin makers. We think they sound just excellent. We had the original violin for two weeks in Oberlin, Ohio, so we know what the original sounds like, also." [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]



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