The Rosslyn Code
Are the chapel's mysterious stone symbols a musical score?
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Tommy talks about his early quest with the awareness that it sounds a little kooky, but he's unapologetic. "I'm not a conspiracy freak, but I have found that after everything I have studied, I have a very open mind now," he says. Tommy's undiscriminating attitude ultimately guided him to a promising lead, some 30 years after he first came across the chapel. The cubes' placement directly above the stone musicians, he hypothesized, could mean that the carvings had some sort of musical aspect. At this point, he recalled an obscure tidbit he'd gleaned while studying the properties of the musical scale years earlier—something to do with patterns associated with notes. Around 2000, Tommy asked his composer son to have a look, and Stuart soon dug up the name of the symbols. They are called Chladni patterns.
Chladni came up with a simple technique to deduce an instrument's microscopic movements. First, he spread sand along the instrument's surface. Then he vibrated it with a bow and observed where the sand collected. The resulting pattern revealed the material's minuscule oscillations, previously unobservable to the naked eye.
Using modern machinery, it's possible to cycle through a huge number of Chladni patterns in a few minutes.
Watch the video below, in which sand on a vibrating plate transitions from one pattern to the next. Each pattern corresponds to a specific frequency.
It's easy to see what Ernst Chladni discovered during his experiments: The sand patterns grow increasingly complex as the frequencies get higher. For a low note, you might see a simple diamond. Jump up a few octaves, and you get a rosetta. Go up still higher and you see patterns reminiscent of what a piece of paper looks like when you fold and unfold an origami animal.
About 100 years after Chladni's discovery, another scientist named John Tyndall produced a chart of the patterns that's still in circulation today. Finding Tyndall's chart was a eureka moment for Tommy and Stuart Mitchell. Several Chladni patterns resemble the cubes in the chapel, and others are at least fairly similar. The resemblance isn't unmistakable, but it's eerily close.
For the Mitchells, the implication was clear: The code in the ceiling of the Rosslyn Chapel was not a message written out in letters. It was a melody, and each cube represented one note. There was only one problem. The chapel was built in the 15th century. Ernst Chladni wouldn't be born for another 200 years.
Correction, May 17, 2011: This article originally referred to the wrong John Michell, an 18th-century science writer and philosopher.
Chris Wilson is a Slate contributor.
Photographs of Tommy Mitchell courtesy Stuart Mitchell. Photographs of stone angels by Kathleen Hunter.