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The smallest music in the universe

Diagram showing how particle tracks are turned into music on paper.

Schema created by Vicinanza with an example bubble chamber particle track, which has been converted into a melody and then orchestrated as music. Image courtesy Domenico Vicinanza.

Positrons – antiparticles of electrons, a trillionth of a meter in size – make no sound. But with a little help from the grid, music composer Domenico Vicinanza is giving positrons a voice to lift in song.

Vicinanza, a network engineer at DANTE (Delivery of Advanced Network Technology to Europe), is an old hand at using GILDA (Grid INFN virtual Laboratory for Dissemination Activities) e-infrastructure, which is part of the European Grid Infrastructure, to blend science with music. In the past, he has derived music from volcanic seismograms with the City Dance Ensemble, and re-created 2,000-year-old Greek music with his troupe, the Lost Sounds Orchestra.

The beauty of symmetry

Now, Vicinanza has delved into the sub-atomic realm and is creating a musical score from the particle tracks made within bubble chambers and Wilson cloud chambers. Bubble and cloud chambers – ancestors of the more sophisticated silicon particle detectors used by colliders such as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN – are sealed metallic vessels filled with superheated liquids or vapors to detect electrically charged particles passing through them.

“This time we changed the algorithm and started working on something more oriented to artists and musicians,” said Vicinanza.

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 in an automated way. The software will be submitted to the grid so that the sounds can be processed into an audible masterpiece.

“My plan is to sonify some of the early tracks recorded with cloud chambers. I was thinking of a piano trio,” said Vicinanza.

According to Vicinanza, the symmetrical beauty of tracks made by a particle and its antiparticle in a bubble chamber creates a unique musical tone.

“Displays of these events are perfectly symmetric tracks spiraling in opposite directions. Their sonification will be two symmetric melodies, moving in opposite directions,” Vicinanza said.

From past to present

This is the piano version of the score. Click to play.

 This year marks the 101st anniversary of the Wilson cloud chamber’s invention by Charles Thomas Rees Wilson, a Scottish physicist, and the 60th anniversary of the invention of the bubble chamber by American physicist Donald Glaser. The positron was first observed 70 years ago by US physicist Carl Anderson; Anderson used a cloud chamber to make his observations.

These chamber anniversaries are a chance to show that art and science are mutually inclusive by engaging the public with science directly through music, according to Vicinanza.

Vicinanza and Sergio Bertolucci, a physicist at CERN, Switzerland, will present how art and science feed into each other at the ‘la musica della natura’ (the music of nature) concert in Rome, Italy, on 16 April 2012.

“My understanding is that Sergio Bertolucci is going to present an overview of the science research at CERN. Then, I’ll show how this research feeds into the arts,” said Vicinanza. It will also be his biggest performance yet.

This is the orchestrated version of the score, a piano is playing the gamma ray, a pizzicato violin is playing the electron, and a pizzicato cello is playing the positron. Click to play.

Said Vicinanza, “I am currently liaising with CERN, which granted me permission to use the bubble chamber pictures for concert purposes, and a couple of music festivals here in the UK. Bubble chambers revolutionized particle physics, offering a way to ‘see’ something invisible. I would like to celebrate by creating a way to ‘listen’ to their unheard, hidden melodies.”

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