Last week, NPR aired an amazing story about the solving of a long-standing mystery. A very special, stolen violin owned by the accomplished musician Roman Totenberg, the father of NPR correspondent Nina Totenberg, was returned to the family after it resurfaced from obscurity during the resolution of the estate of a deceased musician.
Totenberg suspected that a young musician, Phillip Johnson, took the violin from his office during a post-show reception 35 years ago, but the evidence was scant and insufficient to warrant a police investigation. But he was right — after Johnson died in 2011, his belongings were assembled and the violin was discovered by Johnson’s ex-wife, who took it to an appraiser.
It turns out the prized violin was made by the famous luthier Antonio Stradivari in 1734, now estimated to be valued in the millions of dollars. As befits its pedigree, it is considered to be among the finest violins ever built.
The extraordinary tonal qualities of Stradivari’s violins have long been the topic of discussion among musicians and scientists alike — many believe that he was lucky that the wood he had at his disposal grew during a distinctively unique time.
The trees — spruce for the top of the violin, maple for the back — grew in the forests of Northern Europe during a special period in the history of Earth’s climate. The so-called “Little Ice Age” in Europe, while not a true ice age, brought colder seasons for a lengthy period that lasted for centuries beginning around 1300.
The spruce and maple that grew during these exceptionally cool seasons had a more uniform character and a higher density, and are thought to have enabled Stradivari to build such wonderful violins.
Curiously, the sun was also exhibiting unusual behavior in the 17th century that some solar scientists continue to muse over today. The Maunder Minimum, named for its discoverers Annie and E. Walter Maunder, was a prolonged period from 1645 to 1715, during which basically no sunspots were seen on the sun. The magnetic fields that make sunspots were very weak for many years, and yet as that time passed, more normal sunspot counts returned once more.
The connection between the Maunder Minimum and the Little Ice Age remains controversially weak — it had been cool in Europe for centuries before the sun ceased its typical activity. But research suggests that changes in solar output may influence weather here on Earth in different ways, and may have played a role in the abnormally cool period in which Stradivari’s trees grew.
Now in 2015, the sun is on its slow path to a solar minimum as it ends sunspot cycle 24. Solar flares and CMEs are trailing off, even after low numbers during the most eruptive part, and some indicators are hinting at a prolonged minimum ahead.
The mystery of the Totenberg violin being solved, the next one on the doorstep is the sun. Will it enter a multi-decade period of depressed magnetic field and low activity? A “Maunder-like” period?
And if it does, are the instrument-builders ready?