Sonification of the Higgs Boson: What Does the “God Particle” Sound Like?

Since the invention of the Geiger Counter in 1908, researchers have been intrigued by the rich possibilities of using sound as a means of interpreting specific data that might otherwise be difficult or impossible to interpret or perceive.  While a good deal of scientific or engineering data is rendered visually by means of charts, graphs and figures, the ear is actually better suited than the eye to interpret changes or subtle shifts, particularly in patterns.

According to neuroscientist Andrew King of Oxford University, “Our ears can detect changes in a sound that occur after just a few milliseconds” [1].  The auditory region of the brain transforms sound waves into neural activity, releasing neurotransmitters at a rate of 800 times per second, far in excess of the visual pathway.  Bechara Saab of the Neuroscience Center Zurich sums up the difference: “In the end, these differences in mechanics means that stimuli that would be ‘invisible’ to the eye could be easily picked up by the ear” [2].

This process of using sound to convert and interpret data that would otherwise be represented visually or numerically is known as sonification.  Sonification offers yet another benefit: measurements that might take researchers a year to collect and months to analyze visually can be compressed into a few hours of sound.  And when skilled composers are called in to correlate those reams of numbers, binary digits, wave patterns, and graphs into musical notes played by instruments, most researchers agree that it’s easier to listen to the data than to read it.  As mentioned, the ears offer a distinct advantage in that they can immediately pick out changes in patterns.  Enhanced by appropriate orchestration, such as a sudden crescendo, a clash of cymbals, a ringing bell, a gradual woosh, a syncopated rhythm or a steady beat, researchers can easily pinpoint important events or pattern changes and then hone in on the original data to investigate.

In recent years, scientists and engineers have used sonification in a variety of ways: to study solar activity, identify cancer cells in biopsies, listen to a hailstorm near Saturn, study the behavior of orbiting stars, convert printed material into audible output, detect storms and volcanic activity, and sonify oxygen content in blood [3].

On July 4, 2012, an international team of scientists at CERN confirmed the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle (the so-called “God particle”).  This discovery not only confirmed the accuracy of the Standard Model of Physics, it also explains how all other particles have mass; namely, the Higgs particle provides that mass [4]. Not surprisingly, researchers immediately desired to sonify the data surrounding the Higgs particle.  As part of the Atlas experiment, data was provided by scientists at the Large Hadron Collider to create musical melodies. The pan-European GÉANT network reports that “the project was coordinated by Domenico Vicinanza of DANTE (the UK-based organisation that operates the GÉANT network on behalf of European national research and education networks (NRENs)), in collaboration with Mariapaola Sorrentino of ASTRA Project, Cambridge, who contributed to the sonification process and Giuseppe La Rocca from INFN Catania, responsible for the computing framework” [5].

“In the music the peak of high notes in the second bar is the appearance of the Higgs-like particle (about 3.5 seconds into the recording). The researchers created two versions, one as a piano solo, and the second with added bass, percussion, marimba and xylophone”[6].

Various recordings of the project can be found, including: www.youtube.com/watch?v=dX3Q7FKNUnc

and: www.australianscience.com.au/news/sonification-of-the-higgs-boson-the-sound-of-particle/

By the way, you might be interested in downloading The Sonification Handbook.  This 586 page primer on sonification is absolutely free: http://sonification.de/handbook/

Thanks for visiting.

 

References:

[1] R. Cowen, “Sound Bytes,” Sci. Amer., vol. 312, no. 3, p. 45, Mar. 2015.

[2] [1, p. 46]

[3] The Sonification Handbook Edited by Thomas Hermann, Andy Hunt, John G. Neuhoff. Logos Publishing House, Berlin 2011, 586 pages, 1. edition (11/2011)

[4] G. Templeton,  ExtremeTech.com, “What is the Higgs Boson, and why is it so important?” July 24, 2015Available: http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/208652-what-is-the-higgs-boson

[5] Sonification of the Higgs Boson.  Available:  http://www.australianscience.com.au/news/sonification-of-the-higgs-boson-the-sound-of-particle/

[6] http://www.geant.org/Projects/GEANT_Project_GN4-1/Pages/Home.aspx

[7] Image courtesy of: http://cdn.theatlantic.com/static/mt/assets/science/music615.jpeg

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