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Posts Tagged ‘science’

09 AUGUST, 2011

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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03 AUGUST, 2011

How Music and Language Mimicked Nature to Evolve Us

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How auditory cheesecake was made with mother nature’s milk, or why our brains were not designed for reading.

Speech and writing are our two most fundamental forms of communication yet, while we’re extraordinarily good at them, they remain an ever-mystifying frontier of intellectual inquiry. We’ve previously looked at how sounds evolved into shapes, 5 essential books on language, and 7 must-reads on music and the brain. Now, from evolutionary neuroscientist Mark Changizi, comes compelling new evidence to unite these three domains of fascination. In Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man (public library), Changizi explores the evolution of language and music as they came to separate us from our primate ancestors.

Our brain’s tight fit to writing and speech is not because we evolved by natural selection to read or comprehend speech, but, rather, because the structure of writing and speech culturally evolved to fit our brain…by looking and sounding like nature, just what our brains can brilliantly process. I call this nature-harnessing — that’s the secret sauce.” ~ Mark Changizi

Changizi builds on his previous research for the excellent Vision Revolution and psycholinguist Steven Pinker’s work in The Language Instinct to examine how it’s possible that we appear to be designed to read, yet we have no actual reading “instinct.”

The answer is that, rather than our brains being designed for reading, reading is designed for our brains. Writing is a technology that has been optimized over time by the forces of cultural selection to be good for our visual system. We have no reading instinct. Instead, writing has a brain instinct (i.e., is designed for the brain), something neuroscientist Stanislav Dehaene calls ‘neuronal recycling.'” ~ Mark Changizi

Curiously, in the majority of our interaction with the world, we seem to mimic the sounds of events among solid objects. Solid-object events are comprised of hits, slides and rings, producing periodic vibrations. Every time we speak, we find the same three fundamental auditory constituents in speech: plosives (hit-sounds like t, d and p), fricatives (slide-sounds like f, v and sh), and sonorants (ring-sounds like a, u, w, r and y). Changizi demonstrates that solid-object events have distinct “grammar” recurring in speech patterns across different languages and time periods.

Artwork by Kerry Hyndman for Wired UK

But it gets even more interesting with music, a phenomenon perceived as a quintessential human invention — Changizi draws on a wealth of evidence indicating that music is actually based on natural sounds and sound patterns dating back to the beginning of time. Bonus points for convincingly debunking Steven Pinker’s now-legendary proclamation that music is nothing more than “auditory cheesecake.”

Ultimately, Harnessed shows that both speech and music evolved in culture to be simulacra of nature, making our brains’ penchant for these skills appear intuitive. Perhaps most interesting of all is what this might suggest about our evolving communication diets as we contemplate the future of information and the Internet and ponder what the web is doing to our brains — are these media, nascent in evolutionary terms, evolving as simulacra of nature as well, or are they taxing our brains with unnatural and counterintuitive mechanisms that make for impossible cognitive loads?

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29 JULY, 2011

Visualizing the Expansion of the Universe: The Most Accurate Measurement Yet

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What 120,000 galaxies have to do with understanding our place in the universe.

We’ve previously looked at different ways to grasp the scale of the universe, but how can we measure its growth? Australian Ph.D. student Florian Beutler has created the most accurate measurement yet of how fast the universe is expanding. Working at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), he used the Hubble constant and data from the 6dF Galaxy Survey, the most ambitious survey to date of over 120,000 galaxies across the southern sky, collected between 2001 and 2005. The result is a remarkable map of the expansion of universe, animated here to unfold before your very eyes.

For more on the universe, its history, its future and its mystery, don’t forget the excellent and timeless Stephen Hawking and the Theory of Everything.

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27 JULY, 2011

The Beginning of Infinity: David Deutsch Explains the World

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A new way to explain explanation itself, or how science and philosophy got their start.

Since time immemorial, mankind’s greatest questions — what is reality, what does it mean to be human, what is time, is there God — have endured as a pervasive frontier of intellectual inquiry through which we try to explain and make sense of the world, the pursuit of these elusive answers having germinated disciplines as diverse as philosophy and physics. But what place does explanation itself have in the universe and our understanding of it? That’s exactly what iconic physicist and quantum computation pioneer David Deutsch explores in The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World — an important and wildly illuminating new book on the nature and evolution of human knowledge. Fluidly switching between evolutionary biology, quantum physics, mathematics, philosophy, ancient history and more, Deutsch offers surprisingly — or, perhaps knowing his work, unsurprisingly — plausible answers to everything from why beauty exists to what is infinity.

Must progress come to an end — either in catastrophe or in some sort of completion — or is it unbounded? The answer is the latter. That unboundedness is the ‘infinity’ referred to in the title of this book. Explaining it, and the conditions under which progress can and cannot happen, entails a journey through virtually every fundamental field of science and philosophy. From each such field we learn that, although progress has no necessary end, it does have a necessary beginning: a cause, or an event with which it starts, or a necessary condition for it to take off and to thrive. Each of these beginnings is ‘the beginning of infinity’ as viewed from the perspective of that field. Many seem, superficially, to be unconnected. But they are all facets of a single attribute of reality, which I call the beginning of infinity.” ~David Deutsch

In 2009, I had the pleasure of seeing Deutsch speak at TEDGlobal, where he delivered what was unequivocally the event’s most mind-bending talk, presenting a new way to explain explanation itself — a teaser for the book as he was in the heat of writing it. Stay on your toes and try to keep up:

Empiricism is inadequate because scientific theories explain the seen in terms of the unseen and the unseen, you have to admit, doesn’t come to us through the senses.” ~ David Deutsch

Perhaps most powerful of all is Deutsch’s remarkable ability to shift convictions. As Peter Forbes writes in The Independent,

Deutsch is the kind of passionate, clear-headed advocate who can change minds. He endorses Stephen Hawking’s view that we would be wise to colonise space because the asteroid that will certainly come one day might be beyond even the capacity of our nuclear weapons. I have never believed in space colonisation, thinking it an idle fantasy. With no atmosphere or ecosystem we would have to live in bubbles. But Deutsch convinces me that we could colonise the moon and, after a while, that this life would seem natural.”

The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World comes as Deutsch’s highly anticipated follow-up, thirteen years later, to his excellent The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes and Its Implications, in which Deutsch outlined the four fundamental strands of existing knowledge.

Bear in mind, this is no light beach book, nor is it an easy read, but it’s an incredibly lucid one, the kind of book that stays with you for your entire lifetime, insights from it finding their way, consciously or unconsciously, into every intellectual conversation you’ll ever have.

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