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Superstar science: Custom guitars for Nobel laureates and Swifties’ seismic signals

by Brianna Barbu
May 2, 2024 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 102, Issue 14


Rock stars of science

Carolyn Bertozzi holding a bass guitar.
Credit: ACS Publications
Sound of science: Carolyn Bertozzi keeps a bass and amp in her office to play when she needs a bit of inspiration.

If you’re stumped about what to get the Nobel laureate in your life, anecdotal evidence suggests a customized guitar may be a good option.

Carolyn Bertozzi, who received a share of the 2022 Nobel Prize in chemistry for her work on click and bioorthogonal chemistry, is famously musical. So in January 2023, the staff of ACS Central Science, the journal for which she serves as editor in chief, surprised her with a custom bass guitar.

A photo of K. Barry Sharpless holding a guitar.
Credit: Sarah Edwards
Stop and smell the solvents: The varnish on Sharpless’s guitar hadn’t fully dried when he was presented with it, and this Newscriptster got a good whiff.

“It was one of my favorite, fun, unexpected side projects,” Sofia Garakyaraghi, the managing editor of the journal, tells Newscripts.

Garakyaraghi remembered Bertozzi telling her a few years ago that she was trying to learn to play bass guitar. So she and her publications colleagues decided they’d get Bertozzi one to congratulate her on her Nobel win. They worked with a company specializing in custom guitar skins to customize a Fender Player Precision bass with a skin featuring the journal’s logo and color scheme overlaid on a collage of past covers. Garakyaraghi presented it to Bertozzi at a journal editors’ meeting in Miami. She says Bertozzi was “incredibly surprised and moved by the gift—I think her jaw was hanging for a minute.”

Two-time Nobel laureate K. Barry Sharpless, who shared the 2022 Nobel Prize in chemistry with Bertozzi and Morten Meldal, also recently received a custom-made guitar as a gift.

Sharpless’s guitar was made by luthier Paul Reed Smith, who has also created instruments for the likes of Carlos Santana and John Mayer. Smith presented the guitar to Sharpless at a symposium in March at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL). Symposium organizer and CSHL professor John Moses, who worked with Sharpless as a postdoctoral researcher, commissioned the guitar and provided molecular structures representative of Sharpless’s long scientific career to be inlaid into the fretboard.

In an email, Smith says he’s never made anything for a Nobel laureate scientist before. The instrument came together in about 3 weeks, making it one of the fastest builds his team has ever done.

Considering that Meldal is also a guitarist, this Newscriptster just has one question for these scientific superstars: Is a click chemistry album in the works?


Swifties go seismic

A photo of Taylor Swift performing.
Credit: Associated Press/Natacha Pisarenko
Quake it off: Reports of a 2.3 magnitude “Swift Quake” in Seattle last year misinterpreted the data, but stadium concerts can still pack a seismic punch.

If you or someone you love is a fan of Taylor Swift, you probably won’t be surprised to hear this, but science has now proved that the collective power of the Swifties can move the Earth.

Seismologists have known for years that large concerts and sporting events can generate low-frequency seismic signals similar to those produced by volcanoes, but there’s been some debate over what causes them. Thanks in part to Taylor Swift, researchers have evidence that these “concert tremors” come from the crowd.

Gabrielle Tepp, a seismologist at Caltech, and her colleagues used regional seismic sensors and accelerometers placed inside the stadium to collect seismic data from six Taylor Swift concerts in August 2023 at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. Approximately 70,000 people attended each concert.

Each song in Swift’s setlist had a unique seismic signature, and they varied considerably in the strength of the tremor they generated. “Shake It Off” was the most powerful, releasing the same amount of energy over the course of the song as the strongest tremor of a 0.85 magnitude earthquake.

To settle the question of where the tremors came from, Tepp and a coworker blasted a recording of Swift’s “Love Story” next to an accelerometer, but it didn’t give off any low-frequency vibrations. Next, Tepp brought out her bass guitar—still, no low-frequency signals, until she started jumping around near the sensor. “It wasn’t in the original plan. But it made it very clear” that the motion of people, not the music, is the main force behind concert tremors, she tells Newscripts.

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