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.”
April 2, 2013
At the outset of both his new book, Planetfall, and his exhibition of the same title now at the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, photographer Michael Benson defines the word “planetfall.” Planetfall, he states, is “the act or an instance of sighting a planet after a space voyage.”
It is really the existence, in the last 50 years, of spacecraft orbiting the planets of our solar system that has necessitated the term. “Each of these far-flung machines is following the traditions blazed by the great Earthbound explorers, but when its destination comes into view, we can no longer call that dramatic moment ‘landfall,’” according to the exhibition. “Hence ‘planetfall’—the moment of arrival at other worlds.”
In his latest series of images, Benson attempts to lift us off terra firma and bring this awe-inspiring moment to us. His 40 large-scale photographs, hanging in the AAAS Art Gallery, are remarkably crisp views of the rings of Saturn, moons in transit, a sunset on Mars and volcanic eruptions on Jupiter’s moon, Io, among other marvels. Each image is in “true color,” as Benson puts it.
To make his photographs, Benson starts by perusing through thousands of raw image data collected on missions led by NASA—Cassini, Galileo, MESSENGER, Viking and Voyager, among others—and the European Space Agency. He has compared this process to panning for gold—the precious gold nuggets being beautiful sequences of images, rarely seen by the public, that he can piece together into one seamless photograph. It can take anywhere from tens to hundreds of raw frames to arrange, like a mosaic, one legible composite image. Then rendering the photograph in realistic colors adds another layer of complexity. Benson describes the process in his book:
“In order for a full-color image to be created, the spacecraft needs to have taken at minimum two, but preferably three, individual photographs of a given subject, with each exposed through a different filter…. Ideally, those filters are red, green, and blue, in which case a composite image color image can usually be created without too much trouble…. If a red and a blue filtered shot are available but not a green, for example, a synthetic green image can be created by mixing the other two colors.”
Some of the colors are quite striking. Jupiter’s moon, Io, is a brilliant yellow, in one of Benson’s photographs (shown at top). To me, it looks like a shiny bowling ball, whereas for Benson it calls to mind the yellow rim of Morning Glory Pool in Yellowstone National Park. “It’s all sulphur,” he says. Then, there is the photographer’s very modernist-looking portrait of Uranus (above) and its rings in a stunning robin’s egg blue, assembled from raw images taken by the Voyager spacecraft as it flew by the planet on January 24, 1986. Uranus’ rotation axis is roughly parallel to the plane of the solar system, making its rings vertical in this view. ”This is about as close, I believe, to what the human eye would see as it is possible to produce using existing data,” Benson explains.
The sights take some time to digest. At a recent preview of the AAAS exhibition, I watched as onlookers approached the photographs, oriented themselves with their subjects and tried to make sense of the shadows, streaks and gouges they saw. As TIME reported on its blog, LightBox, “Benson’s visions demand more than a single look; the longer one spends with his vast landscapes, considering the scale and scope, the more they facilitate a state of meditation.”
Meditate on these selections from Planetfall, on display at the AAAS Art Gallery through June 28, 2013.
March 29, 2013
Last week in Collage, I interviewed Caleb Cain Marcus, a New York City-based photographer who spent the last two years documenting glaciers around the world. When he composed his photographs of glaciers in Iceland, New Zealand, Norway and Alaska, Marcus obscured the actual horizon. It was an experiment, he explained, to see how it affected his viewers’ sense of scale.
The idea was born out of the Colorado native’s own experience with city living. “Living in New York City, unless you live very high up, you never see the horizon, which is really kind of odd,” said Marcus. “I’m not sure we are really aware of the effects of not being able to see it.”
In a similar vein, French photographer Thierry Cohen worries about city dwellers not being able to see the starry sky. With light and air pollution plaguing urban areas, it is not as if residents can look up from their streets and roof decks to spot constellations and shooting stars. So, what effect does this have? Cohen fears, as he recently told the New York Times, that the hazy view has spawned a breed of urbanite, sheltered by his and her manmade environs, that “forgets and no longer understands nature.”
Three years ago, Cohen embarked on a grand plan to help remedy this situation. He’d give city dwellers a taste of what they were missing. The photographer crisscrossed the globe photographing cityscapes from Shanghai to Los Angeles to Rio de Janeiro, by day—when cars’ head and taillights and lights shining from the windows of buildings were not a distraction. At each location, Cohen diligently recorded the time, angle, latitude and longitude of the shot. Then, he journeyed to remote deserts and plains at corresponding latitudes, where he pointed his lens to the night sky. For New York, that meant the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. For Hong Kong, the Western Sahara in Africa. For Rio and São Paulo, the Atacama Desert in Chile, and for Cohen’s native Paris, the prairies of northern Montana. Through his own digital photography wizardry, Cohen created seamless composites of his city and skyscapes.
“By traveling to places free from light pollution but situated on precisely the same latitude as his cities (and by pointing his camera at the same angle in each case), he obtains skies which, as the world rotates about its axis, are the very ones visible above the cities a few hours earlier or later,” writes photography critic Francis Hodgson, in an essay featured on Cohen’s Web site. “He shows, in other words, not a fantasy sky as it might be dreamt, but a real one as it should be seen.”
Cohen’s meticulousness pays off. While he could present a clear night sky taken at any latitude, he instead captures the very night sky that, in megacities, is hidden from sight. The photographer keeps some details of his process a secret, it seems. So, I can only suspect that Cohen takes his picture of a city, determines what the night sky looks like in that city on that day and then quickly travels to a remote area to find the same night sky viewed from a different location. This precision makes all the difference. “Photography has always had a very tight relationship to reality,” Hodgson goes on to say. “A good sky is not the right sky. And the right sky in each case has a huge emotional effect.”
It is an emotional effect, after all, that Cohen desires. The photographer wants his “Darkened Cities” series, now on display at Danziger Gallery in New York City, to raise awareness about light pollution. Spoken like a true artist, Cohen told the New York Times, that he wants to show the detached urbanite the stars “to help him dream again.”
“There is an urban mythology which is already old, in which the city teems with energy and illumines everything around it. All roads lead to Rome, we are told. Cohen is telling us the opposite,” writes Hodgson. “It is impossible not to read these pictures the way the artist wants them read: cold, cold cities below, cut off from the seemingly infinite energies above. It’s a powerful reversal, and one very much in tune with a wave of environmental thinking of the moment.”
“Darkened Cities” is on display at Danziger Gallery through May 4, 2013.
March 19, 2013
Science conferences are hotbeds for jargon. In fields where dissertation titles tend to have a string of polysyllabic words, followed by the requisite colon, followed by another string of polysyllabic words; where abstracts of scholarly articles are packed with the names of chemical compounds, isotope ratios and undefined program acronyms; where images are multivariate graphs of curves traced through dots crisscrossed with error bars, the instances where an outside person can read a summary of science written for scientists by scientists are naturally rare. And why not go whole hog with the language of your peers when you’re at a conference sharing work with your peers?
But several summaries of scientific presentations given at this year’s 44th annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC), currently being held in The Woodlands, Texas, are not only easy to follow—they are beautiful. They cut through layers of complexity to strike at the very heart of the topics at hand. That’s because they are written in haiku format.
Haiku, a terse form of Japanese poetry, have three lines. The first can only be five syllables long. The second can bleed a little longer to seven syllables. The last returns to five syllables. For the past decade or so, some creative LPSC attendees have been submitting haiku as summaries for their talks or poster sessions. These haiku fulfill a conference requirement, that in addition to traditional abstracts which are about two pages long and can be full of acronyms and chemical formulas, attendees who want to present their work must also submit a one- or two-sentence teaser to be printed in the meeting’s programs along with their presentation’s title.
This teaser, akin to a tweet, already forces scientists to be their pithiest. But a haiku lets them do this with style, grace and at times levity.
Thirty-two haikus were printed in the program this year. Below are a few of our favorites:
1) The Transcendence of Benzene on Titan
Ethane and methane are gases on Earth—the former is a derivative of natural gas, and the latter is the main component of natural gas itself. On Saturn’s moon Titan, temperatures average a mere 94 Kelvin (roughly -290 degrees Fahrenheit), forcing these compounds into a liquid state. In fact, they are Titan’s analogues to water—in 2004, the Cassini-Huygens space probe discovered ethane and methane carve rivers and pool in lakes. Also on the surface of Titan are small amounts of benzene, a sweet-smelling petrochemical that is composed of six carbon atoms joined in a ring, each attached to one hydrogen atom. Though a liquid on Earth, benzene on Titan condenses into waxy, ice-like chunks.
In a talk today entitled, “Laboratory Investigation of Benzene Dissolving in a Titan Lake,” Michael Malaska of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory describes how he and co-investigator Robert Hodyss froze benzene and dropped it into liquid ethane encased within an experimental apparatus they affectionately dubbed the “FrankenBeaker,” a device that ensures that samples keep their chill conditions. They found that the liquid ethane eats away at the benzene solids, leading them to suppose that much like how Earth has limestone caves, ethane pools could etch cavities within benzene shores of Titan’s lakes.
Their summary is our favorite:
Tiny little rings
Drifting in a Titan lake
Fade away slowly.
Through this, the benzene on Titan has an almost ephemeral quality, underscored by the fleeting meter of the haiku. And the idea that something tangible exists but decays over time mirrors our world: people are born and then die, civilizations rise and fall, the mightiest mountains will crumble into dust, our planet will get consumed by the eventual explosion of the Sun. But it is the juxtaposition of the small and the large—the “tiny” and the “Titan”—that is so compelling. Are we not all tiny molecules floating in the vastness of space and time, floating until we eventually fade from existence?
“Using a haiku for the short program description seemed like a fun challenge to fit an idea into such a short medium. It really makes you distill the idea down to it’s essentials,” Malaska explains over email. He admits that his abstract is “pretty intense and detailed,” but that writing a haiku—his first for LPSC—seemed like a fun idea. “I don’t normally write haikus or poetry. But I did come up with a Titan rap at one point: ‘Dunes of plastic/it’s fantastic/gettin’ all sticky/and electrostatic.’”
“One of my nieces used to play the ‘three word game’ with me,” he adds. “You can only speak in sentences of three words. This really forces you to think about what is essential. It is interesting what (and how) you can convey complex thoughts and concepts into just the essentials. It’s a great tool to help write concise sentences and presentations.”
2) The fated paths of Phobos and Diemos
Phobos and Diemos, the two moons of Mars, trace paths in Martian sky, at times going between the Curiosity rover and the Sun. Images of the moons traveling across the Sun’s face, snapped by Curiosity, allowed Mark Lemmon of Texas A&M University and his colleagues from around the country to analyze in detail the exact tracks of these orbits and how the paths evolve through time. For example, Phobos’s trajectory is slowed by it’s attraction to Mars, causing its orbit to decay. Their poster, which will be presented on Thursday, is titled, “Astrometric Observations of Phobos and Deimos During Solar Transits Imaged by the Curiosity Mastcam.” Their haiku is strikingly mysterious:
Two moons in the sky
wandering by the Sun’s face
their orbits constrained.
The two moons wander, but not aimlessly—their paths are fated. Taken outside of the context of science, I can’t help but think that the poem is bestowing some enigmatic wisdom about the interaction of couples in a relationship. Seek sunshine but don’t get too close to it? Or, if the two of you are fettered to a certain path, bright times are only something you see in passing?
“I was considering the absurdity of writing a summary of an abstract of a paper/talk/poster. It occurred to me to be creative in response to absurdity,” Lemmon writes in an email. He adds, “the haiku reinforced the concept that the subject was nature, not data, and in this case that juxtaposition was key.”
He continues, “I think any form that constrains the expression of an idea helps that expression, at least if it is allowed at all. To describe your poster in one word is not useful. But this allows you to focus on the ideas that should get people to look at the longer-form expression. A dry statement (like the title) can be short and will inform. A second dry statement adds little. Trying to measure up to the standards of an art form, I hope, at least amused some and maybe created interest in what is in the poster (which is quite non-poetic, sadly).”
3) Mistaken identity
Emma Bullock, of Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, along with colleagues from the University of Tennessee gives our next haiku, which is sure to bring a smile to your face:
We were sadly mistaken
You are impact melt.
In her poster, “Allende 10 B 41: Megachondrule, or Impact Melt Clast?” presented today, Bullock reports on the examination of a slice of the Allende meteorite, a carbonaceous chondrite that fell to Earth in 1969 over Mexico. Chondrites are thought to represent ancient material from a planetesimal or other body that never had a chance to separate into a crust, mantle and core. Other researchers had previously examined a large rounded object in the slice of meteor: the object, about 1.6 centimeters in diameter, was thought to be a megachondrule–a relatively big nugget of once-molten material that many point to being one of the earliest solids to form in our solar system. Exciting stuff! But alas, it wasn’t meant to be.
“The short abstract is just designed to encourage people to come to your presentation,” Bullock writes in an email. “So why not have fun with it? I have a few other friends who also took up the challenge, and its been fun trying to find the other haiku.”
4) The secrets of old spacecraft
Long-time LPSC haiku veteran Ralph Lorenz writes in an email,”Composition mirrors the scientific process—although acquiring new information at first makes things complicated, the ultimate goal is to find a simple set of rules or processes that explains all that we see. A haiku is a bit like that, a minimalist description.”
Lorentz, from the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, and his co-author examined data from seismometers that bounced onto Mars as part of the Viking landers, launched in the mid 1970s. They weren’t searching for earthquakes—instead they sought to see if dust devils whirling over the sensor could possibly be seen in its data or if more run-of the-mill wind gusts obscured dust-devils’ signatures. The haiku, a summary of their poster “Viking Seismometer Record: Data Restoration and Dust Devil Sea,” presented today, speaks for itself:
Whispers from the past
Viking mostly felt the wind
Let’s all look closer.
Other favorites include “Impact shock heats Mars / Core can’t convect, dynamo dies / Back in a billion?”, for a poster presented by Jafar Arkani-Hamed of the University of Toronto, and “Rocks rain from above / Many ready at the reins / New methods reign too,” for a poster presented by Marc Fries (of Galactic Analytics LLC and the Planetary Science Institute) on the detection of meteorite impacts by weather radars and seismometers. Incidentally, when asked what he thought about writing haiku, Fries replied:
Ah, distill a work
Drop by drop to syllables
To freshen the mind.
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.