Making Music with the Sounds of Symmetry


If you’ve ever longed to hear the song of a positron, network engineer Domenico Vicinanza is making that dream come true.

Vicinanza has previously experimented with creating music from the seismic activity of volcanoes, and performing Greek music from 2,000 years ago with a troupe he formed called the Lost Sounds Orchestra. Now he’s finding his inspiration in the subatomic realm via cloud chambers and bubble chambers, the precursors to today’s cutting-edge particle detectors.

Cloud chambers were invented by Scottish physicist Charles Thomas Rees Wilson in 1895 at Cambridge University’s famed Cavendish Laboratory. Wilson was interested in the weather and wanted a means of reproducing the condensation of clouds in the laboratory.

This happens as the result of a sudden expansion of the volume of some closed vessel filled with air saturated with water vapor. Said expansion causes a drop in temperature, and makes the air supersaturated, resulting in condensation.

Wilson explored how ions serve as nuclei for water droplets, and even began photographing the formation of those droplets. By 1910, he had figured out he could use his cloud chamber device to detect charged particles, since they would leave a trail of ions — and water droplets — as they passed through the gas in the chamber.

Wilson took the very first photographs of the tracks left by alpha and beta rays. Both alpha and beta particles have distinctive tracks: the former is broad and straight, while the latter is thinner and more easily deflected by collisions with other particles.

Apply a uniform magnetic field across the cloud chamber, and positively and negatively charged particles will curve in opposite directions.

Bubble chambers operate on similar principles, except they are filled with superheated liquid instead of vapor. When a subatomic particle hits a nucleus of one of the atoms in the liquid, it triggers an evaporation, producing a tiny bubble.

Vicinanza has a lot of experience with sonification algorithms, and is now applying the same approach to giving positrons a voice. Per an article in International Science Grid This Week:

This new process involves drawing the bubble or cloud chamber particle tracks directly onto music sheets. Each track contour will provide a path for musical notes to be overlaid upon. Then, he will write the melodies and program customized software to harmonize the tracks….”

He’s particularly intrigued by the symmetry of the subatomic world, insisting that the tracks made by a particle and its antiparticle will result in “two symmetric melodies mosing in opposite directions.”

Vicinanza is not the first composer to find inspiration in particle physics, via sonification techniques. Last year, composer Alexis Kirke of the University of Plymouth’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research, collaborated with the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford, England to create a duet between a live violinist and radioactive subatomic particles produced inside a cloud chamber.

And earlier this year, Mason Bates — composer in residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) — found inspiration in the sound of Fermilab for his latest symphony, “Alternative Energy,” commissioned by the CSO, which performed the piece for the first time on February 2.

Source: Symmetry Breaking

Images: Top: Particle tracks in a cloud chamber (Public Domain). Middle: The inspiration of particle tracks turned to music (Domenico Vicinanza)

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