The Rocky Mountain locust sometimes flew in
giant, ravenous swarms that destroyed crops.
his head, ‘Oh, opera is a good way to tell
science stories,’ which takes a creative
mind to think that,” says Anne Guzzo,
who composed the music. Guzzo
teaches music theory and composition
at the University of Wyoming.
The Melanoplus spretus locust
brought famine and ruin to farms
across the western United States. “This
was a devastating pest that caused enormous human suffering,” Lockwood says.
Epic swarms would suddenly descend
on and eat vast swaths of cropland. “On
the other hand, it was an iconic species
that defined and shaped the continent.”
Lockwood had written about the
locust’s mysterious and sudden extinc-
tion in the 2004 book Locust, but the
topic “begged in my mind for the
grandeur of opera.”
He spent years mulling how to create
a one-hour opera for three singers about
the swarming grasshopper species.
Then the ghost of Hamlet’s father in
the opera Amleto, based on the play by
Shakespeare, inspired a breakthrough.
Lockwood imagined a spectral soprano
locust, who haunted a scientist until he
figured out what killed her kind.
To make one soprano represent
trillions of locusts, Guzzo challenged
her music theory class to find ways
of evoking the sound of a swarm. The
students tried snapping fingers, rattling
card stock and crinkling cellophane. But
“the simplest answer was the most elegant,” Guzzo says — tasking the audience
with shivering sheets of tissue paper in
sequence, so that a great wave of rustling swept through the auditorium.
For the libretto, Lockwood took an
unusually data-driven approach. After
surveying opera lengths and word
counts, he paced his work at 25 to
30 words per minute, policing himself
sternly. If a scene was long by two
words, he’d find two to cut.
He wrote the dialog not in verse,
but as conversation, some of it a bit
professorial. Guzzo asked for a few line
changes. “I just couldn’t get ‘manic
expressions of fecundity’ to fit where I
wanted it to,” she says.
Eventually, the scientist solves the
mystery, but takes no joy in admitting
to the beautiful ghost that humans had
unwittingly doomed her kind by
destroying vital locust habitat. For
tragedy, Lockwood says, “there has to be
a loss tinged with a kind of remorse.”
— Susan Milius
\bred kruhst BUH-buhl\ n.
Tiny, gas-filled beads of volcanic ash
Scientists have identified a new type of volcanic ash found at
an eastern Oregon volcano that erupted some 7 million years
ago. Bread-crust bubbles, each no more than a millimeter
wide, can reveal secrets about how volcanoes erupt, researchers reported November 4 at the Geological Society of America
annual meeting in Indianapolis.
Viewing the volcanic ash through a scanning electron
microscope showed a crusty exterior, which can indicate
both the bubble’s depth at the time of eruption and how
quickly it expanded and rose to the surface without popping.
The Oregon ash formed about 500 to 2,000 meters below
ground — a short distance, geologically — and erupted at a
rate of about 30 to 80 meters per second. — Jennifer Leman
Neandertal teeth reveal earliest
known signs of lead exposure
Traces of lead in the molars of two young Neandertals
found in southeast France provide the earliest evidence of
lead exposure in hominids.
Like tiny time capsules, the 250,000-year-old teeth
contain chemical signatures that chronicle specific
times — mostly in winter — when the two Neandertals
probably ingested lead-tainted food or water, researchers
say October 31 in Science Advances. The teeth revealed layers with elevated lead levels at multiple points in the lives
of the individuals, both of whom died before adulthood.
Chemical analysis of one tooth showed signs of lead exposure at about 2½ months old, spiking after 2 years old.
“There are clocks inside our mouths,” says Tanya Smith,
a human evolutionary biologist at Griffith University in
Brisbane, Australia. One possible source of the exposure:
Present-day lead mines 25 kilometers from where the
teeth were found. “It’s not hard to believe that they may
have encountered deposits or consumed food that was
contaminated,” Smith says.
— Jennifer Leman
Fossilized teeth (one shown)
from two Neandertals suggest
that the ancient hominids were
exposed to lead as children.
of volcanic ash
consists of tiny
bubbles with a