November 2012

The sounds of science

Logo for Sounds of Science

Consider for a moment how creative and inspired these ideas are: All matter is fundamentally composed of infinitesimally minute, indivisible particles; the Earth and other planets orbit the sun; organisms too small to be seen with the naked eye can cause horrific disease. Scientific research is demonstrably one of the most imaginative endeavors one can choose as a profession. Yet if you were to pull aside a random person on the street and ask him or her to identify a creative profession, it is doubtful that “scientist” would be the response. But why should the scientist not be recognized as a highly creative professional?

A few years ago, I initiated a science music project called www.soundsofscience.net at The Rockefeller University, executed with the aid of several collaborators on campus and local New York City music producers. As the executive producer, my vision was to provide a mechanism for science to be consumed through art — it was an experiment in the public communication of science through music. Why? Because I imagined most people unfamiliar with scientific research could digest it better in the form of something they found familiar and palatable, not in an esoteric, high-art embodiment, but through conventional songs that get your foot tapping and hips moving – music that stands alone on its merits, in a popular style, while also integrating science.

Photo from Sounds of Science 
Image credit: Manon Cederroth 

I could not have been more pleased with the outcome. As you will find on our website, we have been able to produce numerous catchy, trip-hop pieces of music that effortlessly incorporate laboratory sounds and themes. “He is creating/the perfect picture/punching radioactive black holes/into the angelic white,” are lyrics from the song “Bubble Up in the Lab 2 w/Vox,” sung by Pinar Ayata about her lab mate and the first author of a recent Science paper (1). The song artfully describes experimental techniques used in the paper to identify a crucial nucleotide factor likely involved in epigenetic control of neuronal function. Another song, “96 Tubes,” laments the tedium of multiwell experiments (coincidentally, as I write this article, I am temporarily situated in Seattle to work on robotic automation of multiwell affinity chromatography experiments). You can hear the science in these songs, but the music stands on its own.

In addition to making music, however, our soundsofscience.net project takes this concept a step further: We also want to influence the creation of music by artists and producers. Having recorded a large library of high-quality source samples from laboratory apparatus and ambiance, we have recently launched what we believe is the first public repository of science and engineering sounds: www.sosdb.net. Our hope is that by showing examples of what can be done musically, by making music that rocks in a club or bar setting, and by providing all the sounds we have recorded for other producers to use, we may be able to seed a science-sounds-based music community, much in the tradition of musique concrète, which has roots stretching back to the 1940s.

Photo from Sounds of Science 
Image credit: Manon Cederroth 

There have been other science-related music projects, but none to my knowledge has intentionally incorporated the sounds of real research laboratories or used scientists as musicians in the composition and performance processes. The Large Hadron Collider rap song and the “Bad Project” Lady Gaga rip-off went viral in recent years, but as parodies they are not terribly effective for outreach. Rather, the performers are making fun of themselves, and these productions are geared to be consumed by those already on the inside; though we as scientists laugh at our own nerdiness, most people who don’t work in a lab won’t find them funny or interesting at all. Symphony of Science is a very well-produced project that has a lot of musical originality and overtly scientific themes mostly based on the old PBS “Cosmos” series. However, even though this project has achieved a high degree of visibility and success, it fails to incorporate real scientific source sounds or diverse musicianship within its essential composition. Another project of note, DarwinTunes, developed at Imperial College London, creates music from otherwise discordant short audio loops, using a genetic algorithm and audience selection (2).

By achieving a significant level of public visibility alongside other notable outreach projects, music, and art in general, can help to associate science with forms that are traditionally considered both creative and culturally viable. These are perceptions that science already rightfully deserves but, due to a variety of social and cultural barriers, still lacks. The more commonplace these hybrid science–art media projects become, the more casually the public will be able to consume scientific motifs, leading to the research culture becoming an established presence in popular culture and helping to usher in an era of basic public awareness and improved general perception of science. It is but one pebble thrown in the vast ocean, but the ripple effect so elegantly described by Christian J. Doppler will slowly but steadily spread, making an impact on every corner of the globe.

References
  1. 1. Kriaucionis, S. and Heintz, N. Science. 324, 929–930 (2009).
  2. 2. MacCallum, R. M., et al. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA. 30, 12081–12086 (2012).
     

 

Photo of John LaCavaJohn LaCava (lacava@gmail.com) is a research scientist at The Rockefeller University in New York City and an occasional musician with interests in public communication, outreach and youth mentorship. Connect with him on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/jlacava.
 
 
 


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