“Harmony of Nature”: environmental data becomes music

By Ewaldo Leitao.

Science communication has many flavors, kinds, and sounds. One way by which that can happen is when nature or science produce “noise” that can be channeled into sounds. That can be done using architecture (Sea Organ), or reinterpreting a field of science (Quantum Computer Music). Sometimes, this combination of sound and science can be a deliberate choice, creating music.

DMS student Molly James and musician Hea Youn Chung (Sophy) combined their expertises and interests to explore this intersection between science and music. Molly plays trombone in her free time at a community orchestra. Sophy is a professional pianist and teacher at Yewon Arts School (Seoul, South Korea) who did her Master of Music degree in Piano Performance at The Juilliard School. What initially joined these two at the dead of the pandemic was a mutual language assistance: Molly wanted to learn Korean, and Sophy, back in South Korea, wanted to continue practicing English.

Molly and Sophy in Seoul - South Korea

And that’s how “Harmony of Nature” was born. A beautiful collaboration that converts natural phenomena into sounds through coding technology and expresses them in classical music. The project was funded by the Art & Tech program by Arts Council Korea. The data was collected using temperature loggers deployed in several sites across South Korea, along with freely available data from several spots. “I statistically analyzed this data and created multiple graphs using the open-source coding language Python. I shared them with Sophy and discussed the scientific interpretations. Together, we collaborated on what scientific aspects became what musical aspects.” said Molly, about the process of data collection and curation, prior to its translation into music.

“Like expressing human emotions through musical instruments, I have always wanted to express natural phenomena that we cannot see but can feel through sound. While envisioning this project, I focused on conveying natural phenomena through sound.” said Sophy. “For various expressions, I try to incorporate nuances such as shape and texture into the performance. In this project, the weight of the waves, the ebb and flow of the waves, the temperature changes, and the appearance of rain can be realized by various musical elements such as rhythm, dynamics, etc.”

Molly python plot
Air temperature measurement collected at the weather station in Incheon, South Korea. Period of observation was the first week of December 2021. The data observed in this figure was used to compose the song “One Week in Incheon”.

The composition “One Week in Incheon” directly came from hourly air temperature measurements collected at a weather station by the Korean Meteorological Administration Incheon branch 112. Other data, such as wave height, flow and ebb tides, were also analyzed in order to compose some pieces. “During this performance, I hope you can feel changes in temperatures, drops of rain, speed of the winds, and height of the waves”, says Molly. More songs can be found on Spotify or AppleMusic.

Science needs to reach out to the public, informing in different, inventive, artistic ways. Art is powerful. Collaborations between science and art will thrive as each part can use their unique skills to result in beautiful projects, such as this one.

DMS grad students do outreach in local elementary school

By Ewaldo Leitao.

Academic institutions have a tendency to stay in the “Ivory Tower” and be distant from their surrounding communities. Scientific communication and outreach is a great way to minimize the gap between institutions and their communities, and to educate the new generation, especially about environmental awareness. We in the Marine Sciences Department try our best to be aware of this and reach out to communities in order to explain what we do. During the Ocean Week (June 7-9), Prof. Hannes Baumann and Dr. Zosia Baumann, reached out to the Catherine Kolnaski Steam Magnet School, in Groton/CT to give science talks about various marine science topics.

Cover picture - WorldOceanDay
Prof. Hannes Baumann explaining 'who eats whom' in the ocean

Zosia introduced the Long Island Sound and its importance to 2nd grade students. Then the kids split up to visit various stations. The stations were led by graduate students Ewaldo Leitão, Lingjie Zhou, Max Zavell, Jenna O’del (URI), Molly James, and Dr. Susan Smith. Each one showcased their area of expertise, but catered to 2nd graders.

There were four different stations. Ewaldo and Susan explained plankton and their importance, despite their tiny size, connecting with the kids using the famous Plankton from SpongeBob Squarepants as an example and how it was created based on copepods. To grab kids' attention, organisms were displayed in many different ways, with pictures, a dissecting scope that had a sample with shrimp, baby starfish, a concentrated sample of copepods, and finally a copepod under the microscope so that kids could see how similar copepods are to the Plankton.

Lingjie introduced the concept of DNA, and made the kids build their own DNA strand by using gummy candies and straws. She explained the bases of the DNA using gummies with different colors to represent each, and how they match in the strand. As a motivation, the kids could take their own DNA strand candy home.

Max and Jenna were explaining fish physiology and behavior. They used cleared and stained specimens to show bones and cartilage of the fish. These can determine important fish behavior such as schooling, which is easily observable in the wild.

A baby sea star on the tip of a students finger

Graduate student Lingjie Zhou demonstrating to the kids how to build DNA strands from candy

Finally Molly explained the physics of the ocean. Using dyes to color water with different salinities, she demonstrated how salty water is denser and therefore stays in the bottom of the less dense, freshwater. These are not just important concepts for the ocean, it is why the kids can buoy easier in the ocean compared to lakes.

There’s an inherent joy and challenge in explaining scientific concepts to kids. We, scientists, are often told to have our elevator pitch in many levels of expertise, in order to explain what we do to our mom and to a potential employer. But explaining to kids is a completely different game. They can have a rather short attention span and yet get easily fascinated by new things. Therefore, explaining scientific concepts requires a combination of teaching them in an exciting way, that is also engaging but simplified so that they are able to retain the knowledge.

Having said that, it is a delight to end these interactions by asking the kids what they have learned, and listening to their excitement when they describe what they have just seen and experienced. Scientific outreach to our youngest generation is a great way to create environmental awareness and to build minds who will take better care of our planet.