Tinkering with the Music of the Spheres


If you’re looking for Dan Krause, take the first driveway after the sun. The yellow sphere, ten feet from the road and roughly the size of a large exercise ball, is part of an orrery — a scale model of the solar system — that once stretched for two miles across neighboring fields, backyards, and conservation lands.

Drive in and you’ll find an assortment of precise scientific curiosities that spill out of his home, across the surrounding landscape, and into adjacent outbuildings. Krause has filled his property in Amherst, Mass., with handmade devices that explore his lasting love affair with physics, mathematics, astronomy, and time.

Dan Krause

Dr. Daniel Krause, Ph.D. — physicist, engineer, astronomical tinkerer, and self-described pagan farmer — worked as an oceanographer and, later, an atomic physicist for the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. He took a position at Amherst College and stayed for 35 years until his recent retirement. Now 67, it’s easy to imagine him as an early New England farmer. He rarely uses email, is leery of the internet, and dislikes large cities. However, he spent years scattering subatomic particles off atoms and willingly uses lasers on the property if they’ll get the job done.

Krause explores what mathematicians and astronomers once called “the music of the spheres” — a sacred geometry of harmonic proportions discoverable through mathematics. He’s fascinated by the connection between the tiny patch of Earth he occupies and the big universe out there. In retirement, he explores what interests him on his own terms. Chuckling, he says, “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m in a position in life where I can play.”

He enjoys answering visitors’ questions about how the devices were made and how they work, conversations that often lead to the precision and mystery of the laws that shape our universe. Here are a handful of Krause’s unusual creations.

Anemometer, which indicates wind speed.
Mirrors bounce the sun’s reflections off a bard wall to record solar noon and solar equinox.
Rocket made from an old water heater.
weather vane
Bowling ball weather vane.
the sun
Label for scale model of the sun.


That yellow sphere by the side of the road is exactly one two-billionth the size of the sun. Further back in the yard, three glass globes enclose tiny mounted planets: Mercury, barely bigger than a peppercorn; Venus and Earth, about the size of a raisin. Saturn, since removed, stood a mile away, while Pluto, over two miles away, once graced the yard of a resident who grew so fond of it, he took it with him when he moved. Krause encourages visitors to imagine the sun and planets on his lawn with everything else gone, just the vast emptiness of space, together with the astonishing force of gravity over those staggering distances. It conveys the scale of the solar system better than any small model or book illustration.

Scale model of Venus, the size of a raisin.

Savonius Rotor

Near the orrery, a vertical-axis wind turbine, or Savonius rotor, made from bisected 55-gallon drums, spins when a breeze kicks up. It turns a horizontal rod with a small arm attached underneath. As the arm rotates, it pushes back a large wooden mallet. When released, the mallet swings forward and strikes a rusted metal cylinder, mounted at precisely one-third its length — a “magic number,” Krause says — producing an uncanny facsimile of a large, sonorous Japanese bell. The turbine is guarded by a propane-tank pig, one of many whimsical folk art creations Krause sprinkles around the property.

Vertical-axis wind turbine powers a hammer that strikes a gong.

Solar Clock & Calendar

It’s easy to miss the chronological device behind Krause’s house (see page 31). Two small mirrors, rendered concave by several thousandths-of-an-inch, are mounted high on the wall of an old chicken coop, with three flat ones closer to the ground. Forty feet away, a board, marked off at regular intervals like a ruler, climbs from the ground to the roof of a barn-board wall. The mirrors project reflections of the sun that move across the wall as the day progresses and up and down it as the months go by.

On the solar equinox, reflections from the upper mirrors cross the centerline of the ruler; other lines mark the number of days before and after. The lower mirrors produce three images of the sun that converge once a day at solar noon, when the sun is at its highest and exactly south of Krause’s home. He records and graphs the differences between solar noon and “clock noon.”

Thermal Acoustic Generator

Having read that Einstein proposed using sound to generate hot and cold temperatures, Krause decided to use temperature to make sounds.

He mounted two glass test tubes about two inches in diameter on a block of wood and fitted each with a piece of a catalytic converter at one end (seen above, left). Heat can be applied in several ways, but Krause likes using a four-foot bow-shaped mirror (formerly used to cook hot dogs) to focus the sun’s rays. When heated on one end, the temperature difference produces oscillations, which we hear as sound.

The tones are absolutely pure, with no harmonic overtones. When the tubes are exactly the same length, they emit one extraordinarily intense tone. If one tube is lengthened by extending a metal sleeve, the two different tones beat against each other, creating an unearthly sound that, for first-time listeners, is a startling experience. (Note the scorch mark on the wood base, from the sun’s reflected rays.)

Thermal acoustic generator’s mirror focuses intense heat on pipes, which generate tones.

Torsion-Pendulum Clock

In Krause’s living room, a clock he made stands about five feet high, with its workings fully exposed. A dumbbell-shaped pendulum rotates horizontally, instead of side-to-side. Other parts include flat torsion springs, an escapement, an assortment of metal pipes and brackets, and a level so sensitive that its tiny air bubble lurches when he slides a piece of paper under one end. Minutes and seconds tick by on small clock faces; a pointer attached to a bicycle chain marks the hour as it descends past numbers on an upright piece of wood.

The clock is extremely temperature-sensitive. A brass block encased in styro-foam contains an internal temperature probe that leads to a digital thermometer, harnessing a modern tool to one of the oldest forms of clockwork known. Krause measures slight variations in the clock’s speed related to temperature differences in the room.

Torsion-pedulum clock has a brass block encased in styrofoam.
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