May 31, 2013
For most people, the study of astrophysics means poring over calculations, charts, texts and graphics. But Wanda Diaz-Merced, a graduate student at the University of Glasgow, and fellow researcher Gerhard Sonnert have pioneered a different approach. Its underlying motif is simple: Space produces music.
She grew up with an enthusiasm for science and space, but in her early 20s, as a physics student at the University of Puerto Rico, her vision swiftly deteriorated due to diabetes. When she spent time in an astrophysical observatory, though, and inadvertently heard the hiss and pops of the signals collected by a radio telescope, she realized that there might be a way she could rely solely on her hearing to interpret data.
Since, she’s teamed with computer scientists to use NASA-developed software called xSonify—which converts scientific data of all kinds into synthesized musical sounds, a process called sonification (PDF)—to analyze solar flares on the sun, as well as X-rays coming from the EX Hydrae star system. This software allows users to customize how the data are represented, using pitch, volume, rhythm and even different types of instruments to distinguish between different values and intensities in the electromagnetic spectrum detected by spacecraft over time.
Diaz-Merced listens to these data streams to pick out irregularities and changes in the sounds, and has even convinced some colleagues to adopt the software, because listening while watching data in chart form can help them become more attuned to subtle patterns in the data. “I can listen for harmonics, melodies, relative high- and low-frequency ranges,” she told Physics Today last year. In one case, she said, “I was able to hear [previously overlooked] very low frequencies from gamma-ray bursts. I had been listening to the time series and said to the physicists in charge, ‘Let’s listen to the power spectra.’”
In its raw form, the sounds she listens to seem more like noise than music:
In the spring of 2011, Diaz-Merced was interning at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in Cambridge, when her use of sonification inspired Gerhard Sonnert, a researcher, to do something new with the sounds. He spotted sheet music that represented X-ray emissions from EX Hydrae, collected by the Chandra X-ray Observatory satellite, and noticed a rhythm, common in Afro-Cuban music, called a clave.
A bass player, Sonnert got the idea to convert the sounds from EX Hydrae, some 200 light-years away, into blues, jazz and classical music. As part of the Star Songs project, he teamed with his cousin Volkmar Studtrucker, a composer, to manually convert the data into nine different songs, which the duo then performed with drummer Hans-Peter Albrecht and released as an album.
Listen to the raw sound data that produced the blues track, along with the completed song:
Studtrucker started off by picking select portions of the signal that were suitable for use in composition. As a whole, the sounds are largely irregular, because they result from X-rays emitted in a variable fashion due to the nature of EX Hydrae. The system is actually made up of two stars, with one continually pulling matter away from the other at varying rates, which causes the level of X-ray emissions to fluctuate as well.
But particular portions of the sounds representing the X-ray emissions seemed to have melodies and a beat, and by repeating these short segments—and adding harmonic elements, as well as altering the underlying clave rhythm—Studrucker was able to compose songs based off the data in a variety of styles. In addition to blues, he produced several others:
Jazz Waltz (data, then song):
Of course, there’s an element of abstraction in all these tracks, and with even the raw sounds produced by xSonify that Diaz-Merced uses to conduct her research. But that doesn’t mean that her research—or Studtrucker’s music—is any less representitive of phenomena in space than the work of conventional astronomers.
As Ari Epstein put it in a terrific Studio 360 segment on Diaz-Merced’s research, “Stars and planets don’t give off sounds as they move through the sky. But they don’t draw lines on graphs either. All of these things—graphs, numbers, music—they’re all just tools we can use to understand a complicated universe.”
March 12, 2013
The aurora borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, is a spectacle to behold—so much so, that it is hard to put into words. I think Smithsonian‘s former senior science editor, Laura Helmuth, did it justice a few years back. “Try to imagine the most colorful, textured sunset you’ve ever seen, then send it swirling and pulsing across an otherwise clear and starry sky,” she wrote.
Helmuth also handily described the physics behind the natural phenomenon:
“Your planet is being buffeted by solar wind—particles of protons and electrons that the sun spews into space. Some of the charged particles get sucked into the earth’s magnetic field and flow toward the pole until they collide with our atmosphere. Then, voilà: the aurora borealis (or aurora australis, if you happen to be at the bottom of the Southern Hemisphere.)”
Of course, the experience of viewing the Northern Lights, particularly for residents of the contiguous United States, is a rare but privileged one. (Smithsonian actually includes the aurora borealis on its “Life List” of places to go and things to do and see before you die.) Places above 60 degrees latitude—Alaska, Canada’s Yukon, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, for instance—are prime spots for seeing the lights show, usually around the fall and spring equinoxes. But, occasionally, it can be seen farther south. I witnessed it once in Vermont. The sight was intoxicating.
It is really no wonder, then, that artists find inspiration in the Northern Lights.
Danish lighting designer Jesper Kongshaug saw the aurora borealis several times in 2012, while he was working on stage lighting for a run of “Hamlet” at the Halogaland Theatre in Tromsø, Norway. He also talked with locals there about their encounters with it. So, when the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. commissioned an installation from him mimicking the Northern Lights, Kongshaug had these experiences and conversations to inform him. He planned for about 11 months, collaborating with the Baltimore-based company Image Engineering, and his “Northern Lights” debuted on February 20, 2012, in conjunction with Nordic Cool 2013, a month-long festival celebrating the cultures of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Greenland. Each night from 5:30 to 11 p.m., until the festival’s end on March 17, a total of 10 lasers positioned around the Kennedy Center project the green and blue streamers of the aurora borealis onto all four sides of the building’s white marble facade.
Inspired by Kongshaug’s installation, I did some exploring and found some other fascinating Northern Lights-inspired projects:
Paul Moravec, a composer and Pulitzer Prize winner in music, released a new album this past December, “Northern Lights Electric,” with four songs performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. “My own music often seems to involve some physical, tangible catalyst,” says Moravec on the liner notes. The album’s title song is his attempt to capture, in music, the Northern Lights, which the composer witnessed once in New Hampshire. “The 12-minute piece begins with tinkling percussion, billowing strings and a searching motive in the woodwinds. Then brass suddenly shoots up like a spray of multi-colored lights. Spacious, Coplandesque chords depict the immense night sky,” wrote Tom Huizenga on NPR’s classical music blog, Deceptive Cadence. Listen to part of the composition, here.
Johan Lans prefers to be called “food creator” or “designer for new dishes” as opposed to head chef at Camp Ripan, a hotel, conference center and restaurant, in Kiruna, Sweden. A native of the northernmost city in Sweden, Lans is very familiar with the Northern Lights. In fact, he has designed an entire dinner menu with tastes, smells, sounds, colors and shapes that he believes conjure up the phenomenon. Bright vegetables and local fish ornately plated, an entree of hare and concoctions like “cucumber snow”—skip to 4:25 in this TEDxTalk, to watch Lans describe these and other the dishes.
Completed just this year, the Cathedral of the Northern Lights in Alta, Norway, is a landmark built to honor—and complement—the aurora borealis, commonly seen in the town located 310 miles north of the Arctic Circle. “The contours of the church rise as a spiralling shape to the tip of the belfry 47 metres [154 feet] above the ground,” the architectural firm Schmidt Hammer Lassen explains on its Web site. “The facade, clad in titanium, reflects the northern lights during the long periods of Arctic winter darkness and emphasizes the experience of the phenomenon.” Check out these images.
At this year’s London Fashion Week, from February 15-19, English designer Matthew Williamson unveiled his Autumn/Winter 2013 collection of knit sweaters, pleated skirts and sequin dresses. “It was inspired by the idea of an English Rose, that kind of quintessentially British girl, and I wanted her to take a journey to the Northern Lights, where I saw these toxic colors and amazing neon skies,” Williamson told Reuters. See some of his designs in this video.
November 20, 2012
Christopher Kimball, the bow-tied host of America’s Test Kitchen and founder of Cook’s Illustrated magazine, knows the difference between good cooks and great cooks. Great cooks—and he has built his empire on this premise—understand the scientific principles involved in their techniques. They are fluent in the different modes of heat transfer: radiant heat, convection and conduction. They can explain how diffusion and osmosis maintain equilibrium in their recipes. And, perhaps most impressively, they harness this scientific knowledge to defy gravity—when making soufflés and other baked goods rise.
In a recent presentation at the National Museum of American History, Kimball flashed a photograph of Albert Einstein. “Einstein was so smart not to get involved,” he said. “The science of cooking is actually much more complicated than particle physics.”
Luckily, Kimball and his crew of editors, test cooks and food scientists at the actual test kitchen, a 2,500-square-foot culinary laboratory just outside of Boston, unpack the science and serve it to us in bites we can chew on. I’ve found that the team’s latest book, The Science of Good Cooking, offers helpful tips in explaining the science behind some Thanksgiving favorites.
Brining a Turkey
A brine is a simple solution of salt and water. When you place a turkey in a brine, both the salt and the water move from an area of greater concentration (the brine) to an area of lesser concentration (the meat) in processes called diffusion and osmosis. The added water in the turkey’s muscle cells makes the meat juicier. Meanwhile, the proteins in the turkey rearrange to incorporate the sodium and chloride ions from the salt. “This reshaping helps the proteins to hold on to the added water, even after the meat is cooked,” say the editors. The reconfiguring of the proteins also makes makes the meat more tender.
The editors of Cook’s Illustrated offer up a simple brine recipe. A 12- to 17-pound turkey should soak in 2 gallons of cold water and 1 cup of table salt for 6 to 12 hours. An 18- to 24-pounder should sit in 3 gallons of cold water and 1 1/2 cups of table salt, also for 6 to 12 hours. If you are making a bone-in turkey breast, it requires 1 gallon of cold water and 1/2 cup of table salt for a brining time of 3 to 6 hours.
Cooking Green Beans—Just Enough
I am not a fan of green bean casserole. You know, the one with french fried onions sprinkled on the top? My biggest gripe is that the beans are much too mushy. Kimball and his colleagues share the secret to firm, yet tender, brightly colored green beans (and any other green vegetables, for that matter). “It’s all about a high-heat blanch followed by an ice-cold shock,” they note.
As soon as the green beans hit boiling water, their color brightens. “Some of the air contained between their cells expands and bubbles off, bringing the cell walls closer together and causing the plant tissue to become more transparent, producing a brighter green color,” the team reports. The heat causes the beans to tenderize. How? The polymer, pectin, which gives the vegetable’s cell walls their structure, breaks down and water leaks from the cells. The optimal boiling time for green beans, according to the pros, is three to five minutes. If you boil any longer, your beans will be pretty limp. After some time, the color of the beans will also dull—a result of the chlorophyll molecules losing their magnesium ions in the heat. Tossing the beans into a bowl of ice water stops these processes.
Mixing Fluffy Mashed Potatoes
For the best results, the America’s Test Kitchen folks suggest russet potatoes. Potatoes are anywhere from 16 to 22 percent starch, and russets are on the starchier end of that range. “When potatoes are cooked the [starch] granules absorb water from within the potato and swell like balloons, causing the cells that contain them to expand, separate and eventually burst,” says the book. “This, in turn, translates to a potato that falls apart when cooked.” A crumbly potato is an easily mashable potato. Russets also have more amylose starch molecules, as opposed to amylopectin; amylose is a sponge for liquid. “Just what you want when adding dairy to mashed potatoes,” say the pros.
Preparing Flavorful Sage Stuffing
At Thanksgiving, my mother prepares, as many do, a delicious sage stuffing. But why sage? Well, sage is a hearty herb, meaning its flavor compounds can withstand cooking. (To Kimball’s team, sage, rosemary, oregano, thyme and marjoram are all hearty herbs, whereas basil, parsley, cilantro, dill, mint, chives and tarragon are delicate herbs.) The sage releases its flavors during the hours that a stuffed turkey cooks.
Test cooks compared fresh herbs to dried herbs in 24 different recipes (other than stuffing), and in all but one case, tasters preferred fresh. Be warned, though, “Ounce for ounce, dried herbs are more potent than fresh,” according to the book. So, if your stuffing recipe calls for dried sage, the test cooks recommend you quadruple the measurement for fresh sage leaves.
Rolling the Perfect Pie Crust
“Perfect pie dough has just the right balance of tenderness and structure. The former comes from fat, the latter from long protein chains called gluten that form when flour mixes with water,” say the editors of Cook’s Illustrated. “Too little gluten and the dough won’t stick together—but too much and the crust turns tough.”
The test cooks at America’s Test Kitchen suggest using a combination of water and vodka, in place of the water that a crust recipe calls for. When vodka is added to flour, its molecules, unlike water, do not cause the proteins to reconfigure into gluten. “Using a mixture of vodka and water allows us to add more liquid to the dough to get it to be as malleable and easy to work with as possible without causing excessive toughness,” the testers report.
If you don’t have vodka, feel free to use rum, whiskey or gin. “Surprisingly, the vast majority of our tasters could not distinguish among the different flavors of booze,” say the editors. Any 80-proof liquor will do.
Find more tips from The Science of Good Cooking at Food and Think.
October 19, 2012
For a few consecutive years, as a kid, I put the board game Mouse Trap on my Christmas wish list. Hasbro’s commercials from the early 1990s made the game look outrageously fun. First, you build an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine, with a crane, a crooked staircase and an elevated bath tub. Then, once that is pieced together and in working condition, you use the contraption to trap your opponents’ miniature mice game pieces under a descending plastic cage.
I can hear the ad’s catchy jingle now: “Just turn the crank, and snap the plant, and boot the marble right down the chute, now watch it roll and hit the pole, and knock the ball in the rub-a-dub tub, which hits the man into the pan. The trap is set, here comes the net! Mouse trap, I guarantee, it’s the craziest trap you’ll ever see.”
Unfortunately (for me), Santa thought the game had “too many parts.” He was somehow convinced that my brother and I would misplace enough of the pieces to render the game unplayable.
Where was Mark Perez when I needed him?
Perez, a general contractor in San Francisco, believes the game of Mouse Trap is an important educational tool. He and a troupe of performers actually tour the country with a life-sized version of the board game, using its many levers, pulleys, gears, wheels, counter weights, screws and incline planes to teach audiences about Newtonian physics.
“I used to play the game a lot as a kid,” says Perez, when I catch the nomadic carnival man on the phone. “I used to put several of the games together and just kind of hack the game, not even knowing what I was doing. Then, that interest just sort of made its way into adulthood.”
In 1995, Perez began to tinker. At the outset, the self-described “maker” thought of his giant board game as a large-scale art installation. He scrapped his initial attempt a year in but returned to the project in 1998, this time renting a workspace in a reclaimed boat-building barn on San Francisco Bay. “I worked every day for eight hours and came home and worked for two to four hours more in my shop fabricating the Mouse Trap,” he says.
The crane alone took two years to construct. But by 2005, Perez had 2o sculptures, weighing a total of 25 tons, that when interconnected created a completely recognizable—and, more importantly, working—model of the popular board game.
With the “Life Size Mousetrap” complete, Perez and his motley crew of carnival-type performers took to the road, staging at times up to six shows a day at museums, science centers and festivals around the country. Prior to his construction career, Perez did some production work for bands and nightclubs in San Francisco, so he has a flair for the dramatic. He stars as the enthusiastic ringleader, and the show includes clowns, tap-dancing mice and a one-woman band (she sings and plays the drums and accordion) who sets the whole thing to music. This past summer at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, the goal of the Mouse Trap was not to catch a mouse (or a tap-dancing mouse, for that matter) but to instead drop a two-ton safe onto a car.
“I find that kids and adults both like it,” says Perez. “And when you get 400 people cheering for what you are doing, it becomes something that you want to do. I knew that I was on to something.”
At first, Perez was in it for the spectacle. Oh, and for bragging rights too. “I am the first person in the world who has done it on this scale,” he says. But, over time, he has incorporated science lessons into the act. “It sort of turned me into a physics person,” he says.
As the Rube Goldberg machine is set in motion, Perez and the other performers explain certain terms and laws of physics. For instance, when a spring that is cranked backwards is released and pulls on a cable, which then swings a hammer to hit a boot, the cast discusses potential and kinetic energy. There are also fulcrum points at play in the system. Then, when a bowling ball rolls down stairs, Perez points out that the staircase is an example of an incline plane. There are also opportune moments to talk about gravity, the workings of a screw and the mechanical advantage one can achieve by rigging several pulleys together. Esmerelda Strange, the one-woman band I mentioned earlier, has even released an album, How to Defy Gravity with 6 Simple Machines, with the rollicking explainers she sings during the show.
The whole endeavor is a real labor of love. The show’s cast doubles as its crew, assembling and disassembling the Mouse Trap at each site. Perez’s wife is a dancing mouse. She does all the costuming and a lot of the choreography—and drives a forklift too. Then, there are the production costs. “Just traveling with a semi-trailer costs $3 a mile. I bought a crew bus and that bus costs at least $1 a mile,” says Perez, who is working on getting funding through grants. “Then, you tack on all the extraordinary amount of insurances you need for these events. It just gets crazy.”
But the efforts and expenses are worth it, says Perez, if the Mouse Trap can provide real-life, unplugged encounters with scientific principles.
“You can go online and see all of these simple machines, but actually seeing it in person, watching a compressed coil spring release its energy to push a push rod to make a bowling ball roll down an incline plane, when you experience it and hear the clanging of the metal, it is different,” says Perez. “We make it fun.”
September 21, 2012
The other day I wrote about five horrendously inaccurate scenarios in science fiction movies, all selected by David Kirby, a trained geneticist and author of Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema. If you missed it, Kirby’s list touched on asteroid predictions, natural disasters and a cloning incident—all bogus, when dissected by a scientist.
I had heard Kirby talk about the history of science advising in the TV and film industries at “Hollywood & Science,” a recent webinar hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Directors hiring scientists to review the science they portray on screen goes back to the 1920s and 1930s. Kirby is actually quite forgiving when it comes to science fiction movies heralding from those early decades. The “bad science” those movies sometimes portray is not always the fault of filmmakers, Kirby says; in many cases, it is due to the limitations of technology or simply a reflection of the state of scientific knowledge at the time. For instance, Destination Moon, a sci-fi flick from 1950, was one of the first to show space travel in a somewhat realistic way. However, the astronauts could not wear clear, goldfish bowl-type helmets, as they did in real life, because they created too much glare for the camera.
Today, filmmakers have little excuse for error.
The Science & Entertainment Exchange, a program of the National Academy of Sciences, actually matches TV and film professionals, even video game makers, with science consultants for free. “We have Nobel Prize winners on speed dial,” said Ann Merchant, deputy director for communications at NAS and a fellow panelist. “We were told, if we built it, they [directors, screenwriters, etc.] would come—and they did.” Since the program was launched in November 2008, it has received three to five new calls a week and arranged a grand total of 525 consults. The movies Iron Man, Tron, Spiderman, Prometheus and The Avengers and TV shows Fringe, The Good Wife and Covert Affairs have all benefited from the service.
Here are Kirby’s top five “science done right” moments in film:
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
“For its time, 2001 is one of the most, if not the most, scientifically accurate film ever made,” says Kirby. Stanley Kubrick, the film’s director, hired former NASA space scientist Frederick Ordway to serve as his science adviser. One of the greatest lengths that Kubrick went to is in acknowledging that gravity doesn’t exist on a spaceship. “Kubrick actually decided to acknowledge this fact by building an artificial gravity wheel for the spaceship,” says Kirby. “On a long-distance space flight, you need to spin it to get the centrifugal force to simulate the idea that there is actually gravity, something pulling you down. That is what this thing did.” The prop cost $750,000 (equal to $5 million today) and took six months for Vickers Engineering Group to build. “That shows incredible commitment to scientific veracity,” says Kirby.
2. Finding Nemo (2003)
As I mentioned in my previous post, animators painstakingly removed all bits of kelp from the coral reef scenes in Finding Nemo after marine biologist Mike Graham of the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in Moss Landing, California, explained that kelp only grows in cold waters. But, as Kirby points out, this is just one of many measures the filmmakers took to ensure scientific accuracy.
According to an article in the journal Nature, Adam Summers, then a postdoc in fish biomechanics at the University of California, Berkeley, and other experts he recruited gave lessons during the movie’s production on a wide range of topics, including fish locomotion, how fish scales reflect light and the mechanics of waves. Director Andrew Stanton attended the lessons along with animators, producers, writers and character developers involved with the project. Robin Cooper, head shader for the film, gets extra credit though. She actually reached her arm into the blowhole and mouth of a beached, dead gray whale to take some photographs. This way, when Nemo’s dad, Marlin, gets sucked into a whale’s mouth and blasted out through its blowhole, she could accurately portray the inside of the whale. “I’m just amazed at how rigorous these people were,” Summers told Nature.
3. Contact (1997)
Warner Brothers filmed some of the scenes of this movie, adapted from Carl Sagan’s book Contact, at the Very Large Array, a New Mexico branch of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. (Remember the huge white dishes facing the skies?) Bryan Butler, then a postdoc researcher at the site, served as a science advisor.
In the film, scientist Ellie Arroway, played by Jodie Foster, tries to make contact with extraterrestrial life. According to Kirby, her actions are largely in line with SETI, or search for extraterrestrial intelligence, protocol. “The setting, the dialogue, the way that they are trying to confirm what they are seeing, is real,” says Kirby. “They have to call someone in Australia and say, ‘hey, can you see this too?’ They have to wait for it to be confirmed by somebody on the exact other side of the world before they can actually confirm that it is real. All that type of stuff was accurate.”
4. The Andromeda Strain (1971)
In this sci-fi thriller, based on Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel of the same title, a team of scientists studies an alien virus that infects and kills humans. “There is a scene where they are trying to figure out how big the microbe is that they are dealing with. From modern eyes, it ends up being a very slow, boring scene, but that is because it is realistic,” says Kirby. “It is this idea of, ‘Let’s try two microns. Oh, that’s too big. Let’s try 0.5. Oh, that’s too small. Let’s try one.’ The science in it is accurate. They are experimenting, but it doesn’t make for very gripping cinema.”
5. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Russell Crowe played the brilliant, schizophrenic mathematician John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. However, the actor had a hand double. Dave Bayer, of Barnard College’s math department, wrote all the mathematical equations so that they had “a natural flow,” according to Kirby.