Saturday, 25 June 2011

Particle physics wind chime


Continuing our theme of sonification, particle physicist Matt Bellis is one of a group of scientists who have created a novel way of transforming particle detectors into musical instruments. The Particle Physics Windchime is a computer application that takes particle physics data, such as particle type, momentum, distance from a fixed point, and other datasets, and turns it into sound. First conceived at the Science Hack Day in San Francisco in 2010 by Bellis and fellow scientist, David Harris, the Windchime is currently sonifying data from BABAR, a high energy physics experiment located at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California.

In creating their instrument, Bellis and his collaborators were inspired by the way that wind chimes work. Their chime is played by the particles passing through it, just like wind through a wind chime. "Think of it," Bellis said in a recent interview with SLAC, "the wind itself makes no sound. You hear the wind if it rustles the leaves in a tree. The motion of the wind itself doesn't necessarily make a sound. The wind has to interact with something to make noise." In the same way, "When you have these particles that pass through the detector, they send it ringing, resonating."

Bellis emphasises that sonifying data in this way can help lead to important new scientific insights: "I wanted to create the Particle Physics Windchime partly because I wanted to see if there's something new we can learn from the data. Is there something I can hear in the data that I can't see or that a computer can't pick up? Will it add to an intuitive understanding of the data?"

The Particle Physics Windchime is by no means the only project that sonifies particle physics data in order to understand it in new ways. The LHC Sound Project has been converting data from the ATLAS experiment at CERN for the last two years.

Run by Lily Asquith, Richard Dobson, Archer Endrich and Alabama 3 percussionist, Sir Eddie Real, the project is helping scientists see data from the LHC in different ways. The scientists and composers have notes in several interviews how musical the data appears to be:

"We can hear clear structures in the sound, almost as if they had been composed. They seem to tell a little story all to themselves. They're so dynamic and shifting all the time, it does sound like a lot of the music that you hear in contemporary composition," Richard Dobson (in an interview with the BBC, June 2010).



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