The research conducted at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) may be on the bleeding edge of physics, but you would be hard-pressed to find a scientific instrument that has inspired as much art as the Large Hadron Collider. For years, the world’s largest particle accelerator has occupied an intriguing niche in the minds of many artists, inspiring dance pieces, sound sculptures, and museum installations. Now, a collaboration between CERN researchers, computer scientists, and musicians has transformed the LHC into an actual musical instrument by translating the data it gathers into notes.
Currently, several different research groups at CERN are using the LHC in their experiments, but ATLAS may be the most well-known. Scientists working on ATLAS use one of the LHC’s massive detectors to analyze reams of data created when particles slam together at high speeds. The research gathered from the experiment has been used to identify elusive particles like the Higgs-Boson and exotic types of quarks.
Recently, ATLAS powered back up after a break, and the LHC is now churning out data for physicists to pour through. But while the research may be beyond most laypeople, a new project called Quantizer is transforming all that information into music in real time, live streaming the sounds for all to experience, Ryan Mandelbaum reports for Popular Science.
"ATLAS data is now a new canvas for artists to work on," Joseph Paradiso, a CERN researcher and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), tells Mandelbaum. "This is another way of connecting people to physics."
For several years, researchers at CERN have been playing with new ways to display the complex data gathered by the LHC, both as a means to show members of the public what they are working on as well as give themselves new ways to think about the information they are gathering. Over the past several years, CERN researchers have teamed up with computer scientists from MIT and other universities to develop a program that converts raw data streaming live from the ATLAS detector into musical notes, Mandelbaum writes.
“The sonification engine takes data from the collision event, scales and shifts the data (to ensure that the output is in the audible frequency range) and maps the data to different musical scales. From there, a midi stream triggers sound samples according to the geometry and energy of the event properties.”
Once the program translates the data into notes, a human composer can take the reins and craft it into a particular instrument. Right now, the Quantizer website lets listeners stream data through several musical arrangements: the orchestral “Cosmic,” the techno-tinged “House,” and the sitar-like “Suitar Samba.” For the musically and technically inclined, the Quantizer also offers links to instructions on how to create your own arrangements for data from the LHC.
This is the first time that researchers have translated raw data from the LHC into sounds in real time, but CERN scientists have been playing with the idea for years. Back in 2011, former CERN physicist Lily Asquith told NPR’s Andrew Prince that she had been working on ways to translate physics data into sound both as a means to show off discoveries to non-physicists as well as give researchers a new way to think about the data they were collecting.
"You tend to personify things that you think about a lot," Asquith told Prince. "I think electrons, perhaps, sound like a glockenspiel to me."
While the hard science that researchers at the LHC practice may be beyond most laypeople, it doesn’t take a physicist to appreciate the beautiful music that can come from smashing atoms together.