Georg von Békésy: Bringing the Imagination to Nature’s Limits

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On 13 June 1972, Georg von Békésy (1899–1972) passed away in Honolulu, HI. He was a Hungarian-American biophysicist who won the 1961 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for his discoveries of the physical mechanism of stimulation within the cochlea.”

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Through anatomical studies of the inner ear and basilar membrane, Békésy was able to determine the maximum sound wave amplitudes along the base forming the logarithmic spiral of the cochlea. As he discovered, high frequencies cause more vibration at the base of the cochlea while low frequencies create more vibration at the apex.

His Nobel Lecture recounted the inspiration he derived from studying the works of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519).

“In my student years I was very much concerned with the question, why it is so difficult to imagine something new? Where are the limits of fantasy, was my daily question. It is very difficult to recognize these borderlines in a chemistry or physics book. But it is easy to see them in the history of art. Between the 12th and 15th centuries it was the custom in Europe to use fantastic animals as decoration. If you compare the Figs. 5 through 9, it will surprise you to see how limited the fantasy really is, for most of the figures are nothing more than the combination of parts of other figures. They were much more original in the Near East in the first half of the first millennium B.C. But even so, my question remains, how is it possible to produce new discoveries in science when our imagination is so limited? It was the study of the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci that gave me the answer. If you compare the drawing of the flower in Fig. 10 with the drawing of the storm in Fig. 11, you will have the impression that da Vinci was able to cover a velocity range that to my knowledge no other artist has been able to equal. Why? I believe it is because da Vinci did not try to outdo Nature with his fantasy, but, quite the opposite, he tried to learn from Nature. It was this very simple finding that gave me, in my student years, the hope that perhaps in time I would be able to produce something of enduring interest… Nothing has been more rewarding than to concentrate on the little discrepancies that I love to investigate and see them slowly disappear. This always gives me the feeling of being on the right track, a new track.”

Referenced:
“Georg von Békésy: Research.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation.
Békésy, Georg von. “Nobel Lecture: Concerning the Pleasures of Observing, and the Mechanics of the Inner Ear.” Stockholm, Sweden. 11 Dec 1961. Image: stoccolmaaroma.it

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