The Sounds of Science


We all know that science can be something difficult to get across to the man in the street.  Stuffing technical papers down their throat is definitely a no-no.  Pretty pictures are definitely better; there’s nothing like a Hubble image of the Eagle Nebula’s Pillars of Creation or a satellite image of the ice caps to get people engaged and interested.  Visual aids are good – but how about audio aids?  Go past the jump to hear the sound of software, artificial life making artificial music and black holes playing space-time like a trumpet!

In the struggle to bring obscure (and let’s face it, often dull) minutiae of science to the attention of the public at large, you’ve got to get smart.  There’s nowt more minute and dull than sorting algorithms.  These are pieces of computer code whose function is to sort lists of numbers in ascending (or descending) order.  They come in many flavours – bubble, heap, selection, merge, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are not even remotely interesting to anyone who isn’t a computer programmer (hell, I’m a computer programmer and I find them dull).  But when you add sound, the whole thing becomes much more interesting! Suddenly it’s a bizarre sci-fi cacaphonic cascade, with each flavour of algorithm generating a very distinct sound.

On a more exciting topic, ever fancied smashing black holes together?  A pretty tumultuous event if there ever was one, the collision of two black holes sends reverberations throughout the fabric of space-time (like ripples of water on a pond).  These ripples are known as gravitational waves. We haven’t been able to measure them yet – the only way we could is by watching the space-time ripples bend and distort an object, but the distortion is so incredibly small we need to be able to measure the shape of an object to very high accuracy.  American astronomers have identified a space-based gravitational wave observatory, LISA, as one of two important projects to pursue this decade.  Until then, how about listening to the wave? Gravitational waves have frequency and pitch, just like sound waves.  Check out the sound two black holes make as they spiral in toward each other, starting out with a leisurely chirp, and finishing with a frenzied growl as they merge into one.

(Image Credit: NASA)

Finally, let’s see what cellular automata have to say.  Their allure to mathematicians, biologists and scientists of every hue is in their simplicity.  Take a grid of squares, paint some of them black, and make some simple rules about which squares should be black next (i.e. if a square is next to 2 black squares, make it black too).  Then press play and watch the automata grow.

Once a pattern is established, it doesn’t take much to convert it into a charming little ditty.  Amusing stuff – but Stephen Wolfram thinks these computational diversions are only the surface of something incredible.  Scratch that surface, and the elaborate structures of mathematics and Nature itself comes out of the mist in the shape of these delicate automata.  And you got that piece of info while listening to a MIDI player churning out electronic fodder that sounds just like that song in the charts.  How’s that for science communication?

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