The cosmos is gratefully dead

The universe may be 14 billion years old, but it has still got rhythm. Mickey Hart, percussionist for the band Grateful Dead and a Grammy Award winner, is capturing the beat in Rhythms of the universe, a composition based on a variety of astrophysical data. The composition represents a collaboration between scientist and artist, using their own sophisticated tools. Nobel laureate George Smoot, from the University of California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), and Keith Jackson, a computer scientist and musician also from LBNL, are providing some of the data for the project. The final result will be a musical “history of the universe", from the Big Bang onwards through galaxy and star formation, up until modern times.

The data come from diverse astrophysical sources and detectors, from supernova to cosmic microwaves to the Crab Nebula. Optical spectra of two well studied supernovae, SN 2005gj and SN 2006d, came from the Nearby Supernova Factory, while the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) provided cosmic-microwave background data. Jackson used the MATLAB computing language to convert the supernova optical spectra into sound snippets 3 s long, with the frequency mapped into time. The chosen supernovae had interesting spectra with a number of spectral lines. These produced a deep background rumble punctuated by louder sounds from the lines. For example, the carbon excitation line at 630 Å produces a louder section about 1.5 s into the clip. For the WMAP data, the temperature–temperature autocorrelation data at different multipole moments played the role of time, while for the pulsars, Jackson stretched the data to form a snippet about 1 s long, and stacked five of these snippets in a row.

From there, Hart took over and used a MIDI interface to alter the sounds in a variety of ways – adjusting their pitch, adding reverb and/or echo, and adjusting their envelope. The sounds were divided into short segments and also mapped to a synthesizer, with the keyboard controlling the pitch. Sometimes, the sounds were layered on top of acoustic instruments, again merging science and art. The end result will be recorded in 5.1 surround sound using equipment from Meyer Sound.

This is a work in progress: Hart and Jackson are looking for new types of data to sample, and Jackson is considering alternative approaches to sonification. Although the project is yet to be completed, Hart presented a preview, accompanied by images from NASA, at the Cosmology on the Beach winter school, sponsored by the Berkeley Center for Cosmological Physics, which was held in Playa del Carmen in Mexico on 11–15 January.

• Anyone with data to suggest for the project can contact Jackson at KRJackson@lbl.gov. For more cosmic music, go to www.dead.net/universe-of-sound.


The Particle Physicists’ Song

The following song was submitted to CERN Courier by Danuta Orlowska, a clinical psychologist with Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust in London. It is written to be sung to the tune of The Hippopotamus Song, by Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, which will be well known to many British readers. On 3 February, members of the CERN choir gathered to give a rendition in the CERN Control Centre – the nerve centre of the LHC, which lies at the heart of the lyrics. As inspiration, Danuta cites the songs of Flanders and Swann (www.nyanko.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/fas/) as well as the Particle Physics UK website (www.particlephysics.ac.uk).

The Particle Physicists’ Song

Some particle physicists were standing one day

At the Hadron Collider in CERN

They gazed at the buttons and the output display

Thought of projects they’d had to adjourn…

They dreamt of new papers, new grants and new chairs

A thirteenth dimension and more –

Those physics professors were no idle guessers

And answers there’d be they were sure…


     Higgs, Higgs, glorious Higgs

     The theory told them these thingumajigs

     Were so fundamental

     And not accidental

     They got sentimental

     When thinking of Higgs.


The key to the origin of mass they supposed

Was the boson they hoped would be found

By hard-working scientists who rarely reposed

And constantly rushed round and round…

Inventing, designing experiments new

To answer deep questions that seek

Where most anti-matter’d gone off to and scattered

And why gravity is so weak.


     Higgs, Higgs, glorious Higgs

     The theory told them these thingumajigs

     Were so fundamental

     And not accidental

     They got sentimental

     When thinking of Higgs.


They all thought of SUSY with love in their eyes

And hoped things would work out this time

Exploring the Big Bang – the ultimate prize

And a mountain of knowledge to climb.

They switched on the LHC, hoped it would start

And the data would help them decide

What actually goes on when hunting a boson

And protons with protons collide.


     Higgs, Higgs, glorious Higgs

     The theory told them these thingumajigs

     Were so fundamental

     And not accidental

     They got sentimental

     When thinking of Higgs.


&copyright; Danuta Orlowska, 2009.

• With thanks to Philip Harris of the University of Sussex for his enthusiastic response to the song and for his fine-tuning suggestions; also thanks to Martin Gatehouse and Mary Stuttard of the CERN Choir for their hospitality.