The Sound of Progress

July 2, 2010

Rheanna Sand


Science is all about the eyes, it seems. The word itself means "to see," and for millenia scientific findings have been written on paper, so graphs, charts, pictures, and paragraphs have been the media of choice. It makes sense: we can process visual cues very effectively with our massive cortex. But what about the other senses? Can they not play a role in transferring knowledge?

While we may not get scratch-and-sniff toxicology papers (nor want them), or textured images from materials engineers anytime soon, the sounds of science are creeping their way into the mainstream.

Take Igor Sokolov's team at Clarkson University: they've rigged up an atomic force microscope - the same technology used to visualize the molecule pentacene - to record the internal sounds of insects . Think of it as a stethoscope for 'skeeters, but one that can detect sub-nanoscale oscillations of very faint noises at frequencies up to 1 kHz. The challenge is settling the bugs down long enough to get the little pad on their chests…

They've published three ".wav" files: a ghostly one from the common housefly, a heartbeat-like sample from a ladybug that sounds more and more like an Aphex Twin song the more you listen to it; and a low-amplitude hum from a mosquito. (Hint: if you play it backwards, and crank up the volume, you can hear Torah whispering "mosquitoes are useless.")

Our ears may not be able to outcompete our eyes when it comes to biology quite yet, but particle physics could use a more intuitive method of presenting data. Lo and behold, the folks at the Large Hadron Collider have begun to convert collision data, typically shown as colourful starbursts, into sound. Our ears, it turns out, are very adept at noticing slight differences in tone, timbre, and rhythm - at least, those of who aren't members of Creed.

The results have been not as random as you may expect - especially if you spent your afternoon playing with AudioPaint like I did - and quite beautiful in some cases. My favourite so far is "sweep_tthtracks" - a frantic, playful rhythm which simulates the circular ATLAS detector sweep picking up two top quarks and the elusive Higgs Boson.

So this is what progress sounds like…



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