We all know the elements of the periodic table, but have you ever wondered what hydrogen or zinc, for example, can do Ha like? W. Walker Smith, now a graduate student at Indiana University, has combined his twin passions in chemistry and music to create what he calls a new audiovisual tool for communicating concepts of chemical spectroscopy.
Smith provided his data sonication The project — which essentially converts the visible spectra of elements on the periodic table into sound — is at the American Chemical Society meeting this week in Indianapolis, Indiana. Smith even provided audio clips of some of the elements, as well as “structures” that include larger molecules, during a presentation on his program, “The Sound of Molecules.”
As a college student, “I [earned] Dual degree in Music Composition and Chemistry, so I always looked for a way to turn my chemistry research into music.” Smith said at a press conference. “I finally came across the visual spectrum of the elements and was overwhelmed by their beauty and difference. I thought it would be really cool to turn those visual spectra, those beautiful images, into sound.”
Data sonication is not a new concept. For example, in 2018, scientists turned a NASA image of the Opportunity rover on Mars into a 5,000 image.H Sunrise on Mars in Music. the particle physics data Used to detect the Higgs boson, and the echoes of a black hole devouring a star, magnetometer readings from the Voyager mission have also been turned into music. A few years ago, a[[” embedded=”” url=”” link=”” data-uri=”d71e3e53769b46aa75512f689b034f33″>project called LHCSound built a library of the “sounds” of a top quark jet and the Higgs boson, among others. The project hoped to develop sonification as a technique for analyzing the data from particle collisions so that physicists could “detect” subatomic particles by ear.
Markus Buehler’s MIT lab famously mapped the molecular structure of proteins in spider silk threads onto musical theory to produce the “sound” of silk in hopes of establishing a radical new way to create designer proteins. The hierarchical elements of music composition (pitch, range, dynamics, tempo) are analogous to the hierarchical elements of protein structure. The lab even devised a way for humans to “enter” a 3D spider web and explore its structure both visually and aurally via a virtual reality setup. The ultimate aim is to learn to create similar synthetic spiderwebs and other structures that mimic the spider’s process.
Several years later, Buehler’s lab came up with an even more advanced system of making music out of a protein structure by computing the unique fingerprints of all the different secondary structures of proteins to make them audible via transposition—and then converting it back to create novel proteins never before seen in nature. The team also developed a free Android app called the Amino Acid Synthesizer so users could create their own protein “compositions” from the sounds of amino acids.
So Smith is in good company with his interactive periodic table project. All the elements release distinct wavelengths of light, depending on their electron energy levels, when stimulated by electricity or heat, and those chemical “fingerprints” make up the visible spectra at the heart of chemical spectroscopy. Smith translated those different frequencies of light into different pitches or musical notes using an instrument called the Light Soundinator 3000, scaling down those frequencies to be within the range of human hearing. He professed amazement at the sheer variety of sounds.
“Red light has the lowest frequency in the visible range, so it sounds like a lower musical pitch than violet,” said Smith, demonstrating on a toy color-coded xylophone. “If we move from red all the way up to violet, the frequency of the light keeps getting higher, and so does the frequency of the sound. Violet is almost double the frequency of red light, so it actually sounds close to a musical octave.” And while simpler spectra like hydrogen and helium, which only have a few lines in their spectra, sound like “vaguely musical” chords, elements with more complex spectra consisting of thousands of lines are dense and noisy, often sounding like “a cheesy horror movie effect,” according to Smith.
His favorites: helium and zinc. “If you listen to the frequencies [of helium] One by one instead of all at once, you get an interesting vignette that I used to do a few tracks, including “Helium Dance Party,” Smith said. As for zinc, “the first row of transition metals has very dense and complex lattice sounds. But zinc, for some reason, despite the large number of frequencies, sounds like an angelic singer singing on a vibrato. “
Smith is currently collaborating with the Wonder Lab Museum in Bloomington, Indiana, to develop a museum exhibit that allows visitors to interact with the periodic table, listen to lamentations, and create their own musical compositions from the various sounds. “The main thing I want [convey] is that science and the arts are not so different in the end.” Combining them can lead to new research questions, but also to new ways of communicating and reaching a wider audience.
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