Science, Tech & Environment

Scientist turns to music to help people understand complex data

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Peter Larsen took data about microbes and turned them into music. (Photo courtesy of Specious Reasons.)

From the symmetry of ferns to spiraling Nautilus shells, there are patterns in nature wherever we look.

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But scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory have turned to music to reveal patterns in the ocean otherwise invisible to the human eye.

Peter Larsen, the biologist responsible for what he calls "Microbial Bebop," is responsible for taking complex data and presenting it in a way that makes it easier to understand.

"There have been other recent attempts to make audio versions of complex data," he explained. "DNA sequences, protein sequences as well as things like earthquake data — so it was an interesting opportunity to approach a complex dataset from a novel direction."

In putting together the music, Larsen used data from a buoy in the English channel that collect data about the the temperature, salinity, chlorophyll, and other physical characteristics of the water.

"For the last decade or so, scientists in that area have been regularly going out and sampling the microbial diversities in that location," Larsen said.

All that data was mixed up in a way so the music rises and falls in line with the rise and fall in the data. But the sounds change when played in a different "key" of data.

Listening to the music, you can hear dramatic changes in the music — normally low melodies suddenly get much higher.

"That maps to a bloom microbial abundance of a particular species," Larsen said.

In another song, Larsen compares the abundance of different microbes. Every time a cymbal crash is heard lines up with a moment when Rickettsiales, a particular microbe, is the most prevalent microbe in that area of the ocean.

"There’s a tremendous amount of data that’s produced by these kinds of experiments - terabytes and terabytes of data are derived by these analyses," he said. "Certainly one of the things we want to do with this data is find ways to approach very complex data and identify those underlying patterns."

Larsen admits that songs will never replace graphs and charts for data analysis, but he hopes that music is a way to take that data and help people who aren't scientists understand what they mean.

"In the bigger picture, microbes are in some sense the dominant form of life on earth. Microbes are predominantly the largest collection of life on earth by biomass," he said.

And yet they're not well understood and certainly not appreciated by the average person.

"If we are to understand the consequences of the changing environment, we need to understand how this very, very critical portion of the bio-geochemical cycles are going to be affected by rising temperatures in the ocean, rising salinity and changes in pH," he said.

And one way to do that is through song.