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Written by Gwynneth Borges, Graduate Student

Anyone who has ever listened to music knows the effect that music can have on the mind and body. It can calm you after a bad day, it can get you pumped and excited, or distressed. Music has the ability to instill a strong feeling of emotion in people. It wasn’t long before scientists asked themselves how they could bring science and music together.

Ever heard of Sonification?
Sonification essentially takes data in the form of charts, graphs or any other form of visual data and turns it into soundwaves. Large complex data gets condensed into some of the most beautiful melodies that can be felt and understood. A sudden drop in a stock price, an increase in temperature, earthquake seismic data and even vast numbers of protein being sequenced; all
of these can be understood through sound made possible by sonification. Wanda Diaz Merced, a renowned astrophysicist at the South African Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town was diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy in her early 20’s. This condition
damaged her retina as a result of which she lost her sight. She however continued on with her work in physics and soon came up with a way to listen to her data. She went on to discover the presence of electromagnetic waves by the exchange of energy between particles in high-energy stellar explosions. This amazing feat led her colleagues to follow suit and use sonification software to observe patterns in their data that they might otherwise overlook. Sonification descends from the stars in the sky to the bottom of the oceans as Peter Larsen, a biologist makes use of the process to make something known as ‘Microbial Bebop’. Peter Larsen has a particular set of data involving the microbial diversity at different locations of the ocean. He matched his data to changing music to signify particular species that are in microbial abundance at a specific location. One that is particularly amusing is the sound of a cymbal crashing whenever Rickettsiales, a particular microbe in the ocean, is prevalent.

So how does Sonification really work?
A scientist and expert on music technology, Mark Ballora from Pennsylvania State University in State College, states that to turn data into sound, one must get familiar with the data and understand what is the nature of the work and its results. When you understand what is really happening, you can then put sound to the data and figure out what sound would fit perfectly for
different forms of data. When Mark worked on his solar wind project [charged particles shed from the sun that create aurora borealis when they hit Earth’s atmosphere] he decided to use a shifting, shimmery sound to mimic what he felt the aurora borealis would feel in music form. Similarly, on his tropical storms project, he created a swirling sound that could make one feel as if they were in the eye of the tornado. For his efforts on Sonification, Mark received two $50,000 grants from the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative to help marine biologists to translate their findings from the deep ocean into sound. There is a world of potential for Sonification research. Sonification has impressed upon young minds, particularly in the Radio JOVE public-outreach project which helped young students observe and analyse radio emissions from Jupiter, the Sun and the Milky Way. This project also looked into helping people with disabilities like Wanda to get into science. As Mark Ballora said, educational programs in Sonification can inspire young students to consider science through both an auditory and a visual perspective. This is an exciting venture to get people really interested in science. With the advancement of Sonification, all our tedious charts and graphs will seem nothing more than mere melodies.

Mark Ballora’s Solar Wind https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VPo4iOZRkls&feature=youtu.be


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