The sound of science

This Crastina Column by Dr Natércia das Neves Rodrigues Lopes initiates the theme ”Science and Sound” at the website.

There is much to be said about the science of sound. Since as far back as Greek times, Humanity has been aware of the mathematical beauty of music. Since then, we have learnt about sound waves, how they propagate in different media and how they ultimately reach our ears and then brains, as Lauriane describes in her reflection article for the Science & Sound theme that Crastina is launching this week.

Much more recently, science through sound has also emerged, that is, the use of music for science communication. The earliest example of this I can personally think of is probably Tom Lehrer’s ‘The Elements’ song, from 1959, a happy-go-lucky tune that lists all the elements of the periodic table known at the time. Today, projects involving music for science communication and engagement (more or less professional) are numerous, and varied. One of my most recent favourites is ‘melodysheep’, authors of the series ‘Symphony of Science’, which combines music with words from famous scientists, resulting in some really high-quality remix pieces. For the lovers of hip-hop beats, Raven the Science Maven delivers some super cool tracks on science and on Black women representation in STEM. Many other YouTube channels also deliver science related content, from teaching specific topics, to science trivia and, more generally, light-hearted, good humoured science fun – AsapSCIENCE and Jam Campus being good examples.

It is clear that the overlap between science and music is immense, even more so if we consider how music can help scientists’ skills set and wellbeing – you can read more about it on this Crastina archive article . In fact, there is quite a considerable list of musicians who also achieved remarkable scientific feats (or were they scientists who achieved remarkable musical feats?). Caroline Herschel, an 18th century singer, for example, discovered eight comets; her composer brother, William Herschel, was the first person to ever observe Uranus, the planet. More recently, Brian May, guitarist of Queen, wrote a PhD thesis in astrophysics, in which he explores the movement of dust particles in interplanetary dust clouds, and the lead singer of The Offspring finished a PhD in microbiology, during which he published important work on HIV genetics. (source)

But sound is not just music. Voices are sounds too, for example, and in these days of forced isolation we have learnt that talking to others is essential for our wellbeing as humans, the deeply social creatures that we are. Talking allows us to connect to other people, and meaningful conversations are an excellent way to communicate and delve into complicated topics without losing the interpersonal connection. The sense of intimate conversation is one of the reasons podcasts are on the rise, and this medium has not escaped science communicators, who make use of their voices and other sounds to reach an audience interested in scientific conversations. In this sense we can even explore how different languages – each with their own dialects, accents and rhythms – are represented and utilized in communicating science to different audiences. And how do sounds (music, voices, noises, the song of a special musical instrument) connect to people’s senses of identity and open doors to bringing them closer to science?

We can even dive into more abstract sounds and still be able to find overlaps with science communication, now in the realm of science as sound. Or actually, to use the technical term, the realm of scientific auralization, the art of representing complex data as sounds. (source). For large sets of complicated data, where many imperceptible details may hide, sound can be the key to revealing the hidden secrets of data; it turns out it is often easier to hear a tiny irregularity in an ocean of data, than it is to see it. As we will explore in further detail in one of our upcoming interviews, scientists have used scientific auralization to decode DNA sequences, discovering the songs within us.

Science of sound, science through sound, science as sound. For the duration of this theme, the Crastina team will bring you snippets of all these dimensions of overlap between Science & Sound – and others, as we discover more on our journey through the role of sound in science communication. If this is music to your ears, don’t forget to check back over the next few weeks and follow our discoveries!

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