Grateful Dead fans may remember the lyrics, "Dark star crashes, pouring its light into ashes." Mickey Hart, a drummer for the Dead, is still thinking about the cosmos, and he recently contacted Smithsonian Under Secretary Richard Kurin to arrange a discussion with distinguished astrophysicist Margaret Geller of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, science historian David DeVorkin and ethnomusicologist Atesh Sonneborn; I also participated. Our question: How might Hart perceive and record the "music" of the universe? Can lightwaves reaching Earth after traveling hundreds of millions of light-years speak to our creative, as well as our scientific, selves? Geller answered yes, and offered ideas for how Hart might translate what we observe into music. She suggested that a musician she knows—a person who also has superb computer skills—could help Hart convert strings of numbers representing star formation, gamma ray bursts, black hole binaries and other astrophysical phenomena into music. In an e-mail, Hart reacted to his Smithsonian visit: "Exciting....As Soupy Sales would say, 'My brains are falling out.'"
Such intersections of science and the arts occur frequently at the Smithsonian. At a recent materials science workshop, Julian Raby, the director of our Freer and Sackler Galleries, described the ongoing collaborative research being conducted on ancient Chinese metalwork and ceramics by the Freer and Sackler with Chicago's Field Museum and China's Shaanxi Research Institute for Archaeology. And at the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, Freer and Sackler conservators have created a lab to treat the museum's collection of bronzes; a U.S. exhibition of some of them is being planned. The Freer and Sackler Galleries have also partnered with our Museum Conservation Institute (MCI) to analyze the paint on sixth-century Buddhist sculptures. Currently Freer and Sackler staff are using radiography to study Japanese writing boxes. Used by aristocrats between 1392 and 1868, these intricately decorated lacquer boxes all stored calligraphy tools, but they vary in construction. Is it because of their function or their date? Radiography may help answer the question.
With the National Museum of Natural History, the Conservation Institute is also helping preserve, in their natural settings, Mongolia's deer stones—3,000-year-old plinths carved with elaborate flying "spirit deer." MCI specialists are also capturing pictorial information about these monuments with 3-D laser scanning. And Conservation Institute director Robert Koestler is helping investigate rapidly growing soil mold that threatens one of the world's great treasures—the Paleolithic cave at Lascaux, France, and its nearly 2,000 animal images painted 16,000 years ago. Science and the arts are unusual partners at most places, but not at the Smithsonian.
G. Wayne Clough is Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution