CT Scans Re-Create 307-Year-Old Violin It all started with a gunshot — and a love for an original Stradivari Betts violin.
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CT Scans Re-Create 307-Year-Old Violin

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CT Scans Re-Create 307-Year-Old Violin

CT Scans Re-Create 307-Year-Old Violin

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We end this hour with a story of a radiologist and his violin. Dr. Steven Sirr has been known to draw his bow across the strings at the office, just on slow days, of course. And several years ago, he decided to marry his two passions, CAT scans and violins, but not just any violin. It was a 307-year-old Stradivarius, one of the most prized instruments in the world.

Steven Sirr then took it one step further. He and a few violin makers used the scans to build their own Stradivarius. Steven Sirr and his recreated Strad join us now from WBEZ in Chicago. Welcome to the program.

STEVEN SIRR: Thank you very much.

RAZ: So I understand this all started with a gunshot. What happened?

SIRR: It did. 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 and there was a gunshot victim that came into the CT scanner. And 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 and saw my violin and I scanned it at that point.

RAZ: So the gunshot wound inspired the scanning of a violin and then what did the violin look like under a CT scan?

SIRR: Previously, I had the naive idea that a violin was just a various assemblage of thin pieces of wood, but when I saw the first CT scan, I was amazed at the anatomy, since radiologists look at anatomy in people. I was able to look at the various parts of the violin, but I had no idea what I was looking at.

RAZ: Now, eventually, you decided you wanted to scan a Stradivarius. This is an instrument worth millions of dollars and you convinced the Library of Congress to let you use theirs. How did you manage to convince them to let you do that?

SIRR: 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.

RAZ: This even had the original label from Antonio Stradivari inside the body, right?

SIRR: Yes, it did.

RAZ: That must have been amazing for you. How did you take the scans you did of the Stradivarius and then actually turn it into a real, working violin?

SIRR: After we had scanned the CT, we took the files from the CT scanner and Steve Rossow, who's been making violins for 10 years, has a brilliant mind and he made a CNC machine especially for carving violins. And I took the files directly from the CT scanner and put it into a form that his computer could read. And then, with his machine, he was able to actually carve out the front and back plate of the Stradivarius violin and the side pieces and the neck and the scroll of the 1704 Stradivarius.

RAZ: You can copy the shape of a violin, its curve and its thickness, but are there things about a Stradivarius that, you know, can't be duplicated, no matter how many CAT scans you take?

SIRR: Certainly. Every violin is completely different based on the wood quality. We try to match the density of the wood from the CT scan. We can measure densities and we look at the grain pattern from the original and try to get similar grain patterns.

RAZ: What do you think you're going to do with this technology? Can you, I don't know, make a bunch of Stradivarius violins and maybe put them on the market?

SIRR: Yes. We would like to do that, especially since the latest Strad that was sold this past summer was sold for almost $16 million, which is well out of the range of any modern living violin maker. So we think they sound just excellent and we had the original violin for two weeks in Oberlin, Ohio, so we know what the original sounds like, also.

RAZ: So, Dr. Shirr, I know that a lot of people listening to this right now are wondering when I'm going to ask you to actually play this violin because people probably want to hear it. And I know that you have somebody in the studio with you who is a great violinist, Jeremy Coons(ph), who will play it for us.

But before he does, I'm going to say, goodbye and thank you to you, Dr. Sirr. Thanks so much.

SIRR: Well, thank you, too, very much.

RAZ: That's radiologist Steven Sirr. He and his team of violin makers have recreated a Stradivarius violin with a CAT scan.


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