Whatever your personal opinion of spiders is, nobody can deny that they are exquisite silk spinners. Their craft has been honed by species from across the Araneae order to act as pulleys for lifting a big meal and anchors for stabling the net, as well as nets and slings for catching passing prey. Some are laced with neurotoxins, while scientists have infused some with graphene, and artists responsible for these silken palaces have even been able to make them in space.
Though their structure is noteworthy, a recent project decided to take an altogether different view of spiderwebs – considering them as sound. It might sound loopy, but those on the project argue that looking at webs in this way could inform improved 3D printers, and even unlock a means of cross-species communication.
The project scanned a natural spider web with a laser to get 2D snapshots of its developing shape, which were then stitched together using computer algorithms to represent the web’s 3D structure. Each strain of silk was assigned a different frequency of sound, essentially turning the web’s map into sheet music for a harp-like instrument that was created for the project. Whether the resulting melodies will be nominated for any awards remains to be seen, but some find the (admittedly rather jumbled) tunes to be quite relaxing.
The webs were not to be a one-hit-wonder, either, as the team also scanned a web as it was being made. By capturing the construction process in real-time, they were able to assign each construction stage a sound that developed as the web did. This was once again put to the team’s unusual instrument resulting in a rather trippy track that denoted the arachnid’s silk-spinning process.
"The sounds our harp-like instrument makes change during the process, reflecting the way the spider builds the web," said the project’s principal investigator Dr Markus Buehler in a statement, who presented the work at the spring meeting of the American Chemical Society. "So, we can explore the temporal sequence of how the web is being constructed in audible form."
It’s this step-by-step data that is hoped to inspire 3D "spider-mimicking" technologies that could one day build delicate and complex electronics that are pieced together like the web of a spider. "The spider's way of 'printing' the web is remarkable because no support material is used, as is often needed in current 3D printing methods," continued Buehler.
And if all of that isn’t quite enough web tech for one day, the team also translated their project into a virtual reality experience that can take a VR-headset wearer on a journey through the developing web of a spider. Combined with the silk spinning soundtrack, Buehler hopes that viewers will better understand the structure forming around them as their ears, as well as their eyes, can detect its progression.
The final – and perhaps most alluring – application for the tech is to explore if sound could be engineered as a way of communicating with spiders. Webs communicate with their creators by vibrating when an unlucky fly gets stuck on them, and since some spiders (jumping and Ogre-faced excluded) have poor vision, this information can be more revealing than seeing. If we could tap into these sounds and refine tech for creating them, it’s possible we could one day send them a message.
"Now we're trying to generate synthetic signals to basically speak the language of the spider," Buehler said. "If we expose them to certain patterns of rhythms or vibrations, can we affect what they do, and can we begin to communicate with them? Those are really exciting ideas."