October 1, 2013
What does the universe sound like? Contemplating the sky on a dark, clear night, a casual observer might balk at the question: without the hum of human life, how could the universe sound like anything? But the universe is, in fact, a noisy place. From collisions to pulsar starts, it emits an abundance of sounds. The only problem is that these sounds are in frequencies too low for the human ear—we are literally deaf to the symphony of cosmic music around us.
We won’t stay deaf much longer though, if any unlikely duo has its way. Mickey Hart, leader of the Mickey Hart band and former drummer for the Grateful Dead, has teamed up with Nobel Prize-winning cosmologist George Smoot to turn the frequencies of the universe into music for human ears. Hart and Smoot “sonify” light and electromagnetic waves collected through various telescopes by shifting them up to octaves that humans can hear.
It’s a project that Hart stumbled upon while exploring the nature of rhythm. “I wrote two books in ’90 and ’91 called Drumming at the Edge of Magic, and I tried to find where the brotherhood and the sisterhood of rhythm came from,” Hart said at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, which hosted a screening of Rhythms of the Universe and a panel with Hart and Smoot, the film’s makers, on Sunday. “I went back through the historical records, and of course, in order to really find out where vibrations come from, you had to go back to the singularity—you had to go back to the Big Bang.”
Going back to the Big Bang isn’t an easy task, but George Smoot and others at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California began making huge strides forward in understanding cosmic microwave background radiation, or the thermal radiation leftover from the expansion of the Big Bang. Cosmic microwave background is literally light emitted from the Big Bang, which has traveled more than 14 billion years to where we can detect it today. By detecting cosmic background radiation, astrophysicists and cosmologists can literally look at the light—and particles—from the beginning of space and time.
“We didn’t know exactly where it was or when it was, until George pinned the tail on the donkey so to speak and found the cosmic background radiation,” Hart explained. “So now I had the start of the story. I had beat one—the moment of creation, when the beat started. It was a beautiful timeline. Any rhythmist worth his salt could not turn away from the idea of tracing the history of time and space.”
This isn’t the first time Smoot and Hart have crossed paths—Smoot used to date someone whose best friend was the sound engineer for the Grateful Dead—but this is the first time the two have collaborated professionally. When, later on their careers, the two encountered one another working in sound preservation, Smoot mentioned to Hart that he had been involved in a project that converted astronomical data, in the form of acoustic wavess, into audible sound. Hart was immediately intrigued.
“It’s inspiration for music, and he’s always trying to write and create new stuff,” Smoot said. Hart took Smoot’s data, and, with the help of others at the Lawrence Lab and elsewhere, began converting the data into music. Data for the music was collected from a wide range of celestial bodies—our own sun, various pulsating stars (known as pulsars), distant galaxies and, of course, the cosmic microwave background—Hart’s beat one.
“The information that was gathered from radio telescopes was transferred into the computers, and we turned radiation and light into sound,” Hart explained.
Sonifications—like the one below, which features data from a Pulsar B0531+21 (colloquially known as the Crab Pulsar)—contain valuable scientific information, but aren’t the most amusing to listen to. The sonification for the pulsar represents one of the most musical of the raw scientific data, since pulsars are by nature one of the most rhythmic celestial objects (in fact some pulsars are so rhythmically accurate that they rival atomic clocks).
Other sonifications, however, like those of solar winds or microwave background radiation, are less rhythmic and appear, at least in their raw form, less like what we recognize as music. In order to render these sonifications pleasurable, Hart enlisted the help of members of his band, the Mickey Hart Band, and proceeded to take some artistic liberties with the raw scientific data.
“What you’re seeing is a step along the way to the vision that we put out before, which was that this would be both entertainment and education in different levels. Many sounds are very educational, but not so entertaining—there’s information there but it’s not very pretty,” Smoot explained. “You hear a pulsar, and it has a kind of heartbeat, whereas most of the other things you hear are being made into art. You hear Mickey being a creative musician.”
The end product was the twelve-track Mysterium Tremendum, which was released in April 2012. The album included sonification with, as Hart describes it, “Earth music” added to create an enjoyable listening experience. “This brings together art and science, which is a very powerful combination,” Hart said. “I try to use as little amount of whole Earth instruments [music added by musicians using instruments and voice] as I could, but still make it entertaining.”
After the release of the album, Hart and Smoot continued, creating a multimedia representation of the music with a video, Rhythms of the Universe. The 20-minute film features high-definition photographs of celestial elements shown alongside Hart’s sonified music—so when viewers see the Crab Pulsar, they hear the sounds that go along with it.
Both Hart and Smoot hope that the video will eventually make its way into educational settings and inspire the minds of young scientists and artists. But, for now, Hart is focused on its rhythm—rhythms having held sway over the musician for much of his life.
“The whole universe is based on vibrations—it’s the basic element of all life, and rhythm is controlled vibration,” Hart said. “Everything has a sound and a light. Everything that moves is alive; if it isn’t it’s inanimate, it’s dead. And when the rhythm stops, we stop.”
February 7, 2013
Few non-scientists would be able to distinguish the E. coli
virus bacteria from the HIV virus under a microscope. Artist Luke Jerram, however, can describe in intricate detail the shapes of a slew of deadly viruses pathogens. He is intrigued by them, as a subject matter, because of their inherent irony. That is, something as virulent as SARS can actually, in its physical form, be quite delicate.
Clearly adept at scientific work—as an undergraduate, the Brit was offered a spot on a university engineering program—Jerram chose to pursue art instead. “Scientists and artists start by asking similar questions about the natural world,” he told SEED magazine in a 2009 interview. “They just end up with completely different answers.”
To create a body of work he calls “Glass Microbiology,” Jerram has enlisted the help of virologist Andrew Davidson from the University of Bristol and the expertise of professional glassblowers Kim George, Brian George and Norman Veitch. Together, the cross-disciplinary team brings hazardous pathogens, such as the H1N1 virus or HIV, to light in translucent glass forms.
The artist insists that his sculptures be colorless, in contrast to the images scientists sometimes disseminate that are enhanced with bright hues. “Viruses have no color as they are smaller than the wavelength of light,” says Jerram, in an email. “So the artworks are created as alternative representations of viruses to the artificially colored imagery we receive through the media.” Jerram and Davidson create sketches, which they then take to the glassblowers, to see whether the intricate structures of the diseases can be replicated in glass, at approximately one million times their original size.
These glass sculptures require extreme attention to detail. “I consult virologists at the University of Bristol about the details of each artwork,” says Jerram. “Often I’m asking a question about how a particular part of the virion looks, and they don’t know the answer. We have to piece together our understanding by comparing grainy electron microscope images with abstract chemical models and existing diagrams.”
Yet, to physically create these structures in glass, the design may have to be tweaked. Some viruses, in their true form, would simply be too delicate and wouldn’t hold up. Jerram’s representation of the H1N1 (or Swine Flu) virus, for instance, looks far spikier than it might in reality. This was done, not to add to the ferocity of the virus’ image, but to prevent the artwork from crumbling or breaking.
Jerram has to decide what to do when new research suggests different forms for the structures of viruses. “Over time, scientific understanding of the virus improves and so I have to amend my models accordingly,” explains the artist. For example, “I’m currently in dialogue with a scientist at the University of Florida about the structure of the smallpox virus. He has published papers that show a very different understanding of the internal structure. I now need to consider whether to create a new model or wait until his model has become more widely accepted by the scientific community.” Jerram’s art is often used in scientific journals as an alternative to colorful simulations, so being as up-to-date as possible is definitely in his best interest.
Jerram’s marvelous glass sculptures bring awareness to some of the worst killers of our age. “The pieces are made for people to contemplate the global impact of each disease,” he says. “I’m interested in sharing the tension that has arisen between the artworks’ beauty and what they represent.”
Jerram’s microbial sculptures are on display in “Playing with Fire: 50 Years of Contemporary Glass,” an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Art and Design through April 7, 2013, and “Pulse: Art and Medicine,” opening at Strathmore Fine Art in Bethesda, Maryland, on February 16. “Pulse” runs through April 13, 2013.
Editor’s Note, February 15, 2013: Earlier versions of this post incorrectly stated or implied that E. coli and malaria are viruses. They are not–E. coli is a bacteria and malaria is a malaise caused by microorganisms. Errors in the first paragraph were fixed and the title of the post was changed.
February 5, 2013
When Pupa U. P. A. Gilbert, a biophysicist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and her colleague Christopher E. Killian saw the scanning electron micrograph that they took of a sea urchin’s tooth, they were dumbstruck, says the journal Science. “I had never seen anything that beautiful,” Gilbert told the publication.
The individual crystals of calcite that form an urchin’s tooth are pointy, interlocking pieces; as the outermost crystals decay, others come to the surface, keeping the tooth sharp. In Photoshop, Gilbert added blues, greens and purples to the black-and-white image to differentiate the crystals. The resulting image calls to mind an eerie landscape in a Tim Burton movie.
Judges of the 2012 International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge, a competition sponsored by Science and the National Science Foundation, as well as the public who voted online, were equally ecstatic about the SEM image. Enough so, in fact, that they selected the micrograph as the first place and people’s choice winner for the contest’s photography division.
The 10th annual Visualization Challenge received 215 entries across five categories—photography, illustration, posters and graphics, games and apps, and video. The submissions are judged based on visual impact, effective communication and originality.
And…drum roll, please. Here are some of the the recently announced winners:
Kai-hung Fung, a radiologist at Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital in Hong Kong, captured this image of a clam shell (on the left) and a spiral-shaped sea snail shell (on the right) using a CT scanner. The image won honorable mention in the photography category. The multi-colored lines represent the contours in the shells. Fung told Science that he took into account “two sides of a coin” when making the image. “One side is factual information, wile the other side is artistic,” he told the journal.
Viktor Sykora, a biologist at Charles University in Prague, and researchers at the Czech Technical University submitted three miniscule (we’re talking three millimeters in diameter or less) seeds to high-resolution, high-contrast x-ray imaging (on the left) and microscopy (on the right). The above image also won honorable mention in the photography category.
Earning him first prize in the illustration category, Emmett McQuinn, a hardware engineer at IBM, created this “wiring diagram” for a new kind of computer chip, based on the neural pathways in a macaque‘s brain.
Maxime Chamberland, a computer science graduate student at the Sherbrooke Connectivity Imaging Lab in Canada, used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to capture this ominous image of a brain tumor. (The tumor is the solid red mass in the left side of the brain.) Science calls the image a “road map for neurosurgeons,” in that the red fibers are hot-button fibers that, if severed, could negatively impact the patient’s everyday functions, while blue fibers are nonthreatening. The image won honorable mention and was the people’s choice winner in the contest’s illustration category.
A team of researchers (Guillermo Marin, Fernando M. Cucchietti, Mariano Vázquez, Carlos Tripiana, Guillaume Houzeaux, Ruth Arís, Pierre Lafortune and Jazmin Aguado-Sierra) at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center produced this first-place and people’s-choice winning video, “Alya Red: A Computational Heart.” The film shows Alya Red, a realistic animation of a beating human heart that the scientists designed using MRI data.
“I was literally blown away,” Michael Reddy, a judge in the contest, told Science. “After the first time I watched the video, I thought, ‘I’ve just changed the way I thought about a heart.’”
Be sure to check out the other videos below, which received honorable mention in the contest:
Fertilization, by Thomas Brown, Stephen Boyd, Ron Collins, Mary Beth Clough, Kelvin Li, Erin Frederikson, Eric Small, Walid Aziz, Hoc Kho, Daniel Brown and Nobles Green Nucleus Medical Media
Observing the Coral Symbiome Using Laser Scanning Confocal Microscopy, by Christine E. Farrar, Zac H. Forsman, Ruth D. Gates, Jo-Ann C. Leong, and Robert J. Toonen, Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, University of Hawaii, Manoa
Revealing Invisible Changes in the World, by Michael Rubinstein, Neal Wadhwa, Frédo Durand, William T. Freeman, Hao-Yu Wu, John Guttag, MIT; and Eugene Shih, Quanta Research Cambridge
For winners in the posters and graphics and games and apps categories, see the National Science Foundation’s special report on the International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge.
January 30, 2013
It is always interesting to watch a beatboxer perform. The artist, in the thrust of performing, can reach a compulsive fit as he musters up the rhythmic sounds of percussion instruments a cappella-style.
But what does beatboxing looking like from the inside?
That is the question that University of Southern California researchers Michael Proctor, Shrikanth Narayanan and Krishna Nayak asked in a study (PDF), slated to be published in the February issue of the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. For the first time, they used real-time Magnetic Resonance Imaging to examine the so-called “paralinguistic mechanisms” that happen in a beatboxer’s vocal tract.
For the purposes of the experiment, a 27-year-old male hip hop artist from Los Angeles demonstrated his full repertoire of beatboxing effects—sounds imitating kick drums, rim shots, hi-hats and cymbals—while lying on his back in an MRI scanner. The researchers made a total of 40 recordings, each from 20 to 40 seconds in duration and capturing single sounds, free-style sequences of sounds, rapped or sung lyrics and spoken word. They paired the audio with video stringing together the MRI scans to analyze the airflow and the movements, from the upper trachea to the man’s lips, that happened with each utterance.
“We were astonished by the complex elegance of the vocal movements and the sounds being created in beatboxing, which in itself is an amazing artistic display,” Narayanan told Inside Science News Service, the first to report on the study. “This incredible vocal instrument and its many capabilities continue to amaze us, from the intricate choreography of the ‘dance of the tongue’ to the complex aerodynamics that work together to create a rich tapestry of sounds that encode not only meaning but also a wide range of emotions.”
It was a humbling experience, added Narayanan, to realize how much we have yet to learn about speech anatomy and the physical capabilities of humans when it comes to vocalization.
One of the larger goals of the study was to determine the extent to which beatbox artists use sounds already found in human languages. The researchers used the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to describe the sound effects produced by their subject and then compared those effects to a comprehensive library of sounds, encompassing all human languages.
“We were very surprised to discover how closely the vocal percussion sounds resembled sounds attested in languages unknown to the beatboxer,” Michael Proctor told Wired. The hip hop artist who participated in the study spoke American English and Panamanian Spanish, and yet he unknowingly produced sounds common to other languages. The study states:
…he was able to produce a wide range of non-native consonantal sound effects, including clicks and ejectives. The effects /ŋ||/–/ŋ!/–/ŋ|/ used to emulate the sounds of specific types of snare drums and rim shots appear to be very similar to consonants attested in many African languages, including Xhosa (Bantu language family, spoken in Eastern Cape, South Africa), Khoekhoe (Khoe, Botswana) and !Xóõ (Tuu, Namibia). The ejectives /p’/ and /pf’/ used to emulate kick and snare drums shares the same major phonetic properties as the glottalic egressives used in languages as diverse as Nuxáalk (Salishan, British Columbia), Chechen (Caucasian, Chechnya), and Hausa (Chadic, Nigeria).
Going forward, the researchers would like to study a larger sample of beatboxers. They’d also like to get to the bottom of something that has been boggling audiences for decades: How do some beatboxers simultaneously layer certain instrumental sounds with hums and spoken words?
December 24, 2012
If you were to walk into the Living Planet Aquarium today in Sandy, Utah, and meander through the “Journey to South America” gallery–past 10-foot anacondas, piranha and caiman alligators–you’d meet Sparky. The nearly four-foot-long electric eel draws a crowd, particularly in December, when it causes the lights on a nearby Christmas tree to twinkle.
That’s right: twinkle.
Electric eels have to navigate the dark, murky streams and ponds where they live in South America. (Or, in Sparky’s case, his large tank.) The slender, snake-like fish have tiny eyes that are not very effective in low-light conditions. So, to wayfind, electric eels, true to their name, rely on their electric organs. These organs contain about 6,000 cells, called electrocytes, that stow power much like batteries do. Eels emit that power through low- and high-voltage charges when circumstances call for it.
“They will use their electricity similar to how a dolphin would use sonar or a bat would use radar,” says Andy Allison, curator of animals at the Living Planet Aquarium, a facility about 20 miles south of Salt Lake City. “He [Sparky] will put out little shocks whenever he is moving, real low-voltage type things, just enough so that it can help sense his environment.” For its Christmas display, the aquarium takes advantage of the little pulses of electricity that Sparky sends out as he swims. “Also, when he is hungry or senses food in the area, or angry, he will send out a big shock to stun prey or to stun a predator,” says Allison. These large shocks can measure up to 600 volts.
So how does the twinkling Christmas tree work?
About three years ago, Bill Carnell, an electrician with Cache Valley Electric, in Salt Lake City, found a really interesting video on YouTube produced by the Moody Institute of Science in the 1950s. In it, a scientist demonstrates how an electric eel can power a panel of light bulbs. Inspired, he began experimenting with Sparky. Carnell connected a standard 120-volt light bulb to electrodes, which he dunked into Sparky’s tank. The light bulb did not turn on. He tried a string of Christmas lights. Again, no results. So, he tried a strand of specialized, very low-voltage lights, and he finally got some flickering.
Carnell and his colleagues installed two stainless steel electrodes, one on each side of Sparky’s tank. These electrodes collect the voltage the electric eel emits to then power a sequencer. “The sequencer takes the voltage the eel produces and operates circuitry that flashes the lights, fast or slow, based on the level of voltage he puts out,” says Terry Smith, project manager at Cache Valley Electric, in a press release.
The five-foot-tall tree, which stands just next to Sparky’s tank, is decorated with four strands of lights. While the eel does not power the lights, he does control the way the strands flicker. “As he shocks, one strand shuts off and another strand turns on,” says Allison.
Of course, when Sparky is calm and resting on the bottom of his tank, the lights on the nearby tree are pretty constant. “But when it is moving, it is boom, boom, bo-boom, boom, boom,” says Allison. Electric eels are capable of multiple shocks a second.
“You do truly get a feel for what the eel is doing. You get to see when the voltage goes up and when the voltage goes down. You experience all of that,” says Carnell.
The attention that the display draws is valuable, the electrician adds. “Researchers looking to the future are trying to find ways to generate electricity through some kind of a biological process, rather than combustion or some mechanical energy. When you get into the science of the eel and you find that its body is constructed of all these little tiny batteries, of sorts, that are powered biologically, that is where the real interest is,” says Carnell.
Sparky’s tree will be on display at the Living Planet Aquarium through December 31.