Brain Pickings

Radioactive Orchestra: Making Music from Nuclear Isotopes

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Getting excited about excited states, or what Marie Curie has to do with experimental music.

In 2011, the need to understand radioactivity glared at us with more urgency than ever, in the face of the Fukushima disaster and continued debates about nuclear energy. In May, we took a more playful and artistic look at the issue with Lisa Redniss’s Radioactive, the beautiful cyanotype-illustrated story of Marie Curie’s life and legacy, and today we turn to another cross-disciplinary illuminator: The Radioactive Orchestra — a project aiming to explain radioactivity through music by inviting you to compose tunes with 3,175 of the most interesting radioactive isotopes in an effort to glean new understanding of what radiation really is.

It works like this: Melodies are created by simulating the decay of an atomic nucleus from an excited nuclear state down to its ground state. A single gamma photon is released for every step of the energy loss and, by representing the energy of the photon as the pitch of a note, the photon plays a note each time this happens. For an added touch of synesthesia, this is also visualized by a colorful ray coming out of the atomic nucleus. Because every isotope has a unique set of possible excited states and decay patterns, it also has a unique sonic fingerprint.

It’s really exciting to do a project where we can listen to radiation. There has never really been a way to sense the radiation around us. You can neither see it nor hear it.”

The project comes from Swedish nuclear safety organization KSU and DJ Axel Boman, and is a fine addition to this running list of experimental music projects. (Besides, if you can play the HIV virus and the number pi, why shouldn’t you play an isotope or two?)

So go ahead, give it a whirl.

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