Ever listened to music created by microbes? Well, now you can thanks to scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory. The team, who were looking for patterns in readings from microbial samples collected in the western English Channel, took the data from the blue-green algae and turned it into musical notes. The bizarre project was the idea of Peter Larsen, a biologist at the Argonne National Laboratory who thought that turning the data into music—rather than creating a visual representation— was the best way to make sense of it all.
“Thinking of interesting ways to highlight interactions within data is part of my daily job,” Larsen said. “I am always trying to find new ways to visualize those relationships in ways so that someone can make relevant biological conclusions.”
“There are certain parameters like sunlight, temperature or the concentration of phosphorus in the water that give a kind of structure to the data and determine the microbial populations,” he said. “This structure provides us with an intuitive way to use music to describe a wide range of natural phenomena.”
The idea of putting the data to classical music idea was suggested by a colleague of Larsen, but Larsen wanted any patterns inherent in the information to emerge naturally and not to be imposed from without.
“For something as structured as classical music, there’s an insufficient amount of structure that you can infer without having to tweak the result to fit what you perceive it should sound like,” Larsen added. “We didn’t want to do that.”
What surprised the team was just how melodic the music actually was – “We were astounded by just how musical it sounded,” Larsen said. “A large majority of attempts to converting linear data into sound succeed, but they really don’t obey the dictates of music – meter, tempo, harmony. To see these things in natural phenomena and to describe them was a wonderful surprise.”
Images: Mark Sadowski and Argonne National Laboratory