The exciting things I see make up for the lack of exciting things I do

I spent a good chunk of last week quite angry. For most of the week I was working at a writing retreat and trying to help create an environment in which people felt comfortable to share their research and to receive feedback. I was angry because the main feedback I got was “how does this help people?” and “Oh ho ho spiders are funny” and “LOL you said ‘virgin.’”

It’s not like I haven’t gotten these questions before but after making an effort to understand why others found their own research interesting it struck a nerve which I had thought well-armoured by callouses.

I managed to calm myself down by just thinking that “it’s okay because we’re all going to die eventually.”

I’m not depressed I’m just morbid.

I then got sick which didn’t help my mood because it makes me feel stupid and lazy which are also things which make me angry.

I’m having a bad week. So in addition to thinking about death I have also been thinking about pretty things. Namely, I subscribed to the Nature website and got linked to a new science/art collaborative art project called Living symphonies which is super exciting.



In the coming (British) summer, a pair of artists are going to be going around four different English forests and setting up speakers to play music produced by computer models of animal behaviour. The duo will work with local ecologists to develop a model of animal movements, behaviours and their temporal components and will compose motifs for different behavioural states for each of the animals/organisms.

The result will be a symphony which translates the (inaudible) behaviour and presence of a range of different organisms into music. Furthermore, the models will incorporate time-specific behaviours so that, as the light wanes, presumably the behaviours portrayed through the symphony will change.

The reason why I’m so excited about this is that a) lots of sound/science crossovers have been popping up on various feeds this week and b) this project aims to do so many important things e.g. :

  1. It takes science into the public space
  2. It makes the intangible tangible by
  3. Translating behaviour and species assemblage into something audible (how do i wordpress)
  4. And conveying the ephemeral and time-specific nature of…well, nature.

It probably also struck a chord with me because a friend of mine had sent me a sound clip of some work she had been doing (she’s a composer). Over the summer, she went out into Kepa bush at roughly the same time every day for … I forget but a long long time, and recorded the cicadas. I was excited to hear the recording although I didn’t really know what I was expecting.

She started in the middle of the (real) summer so it began with a roar, as you’d expect, and took some time to peter out but sure enough, through the din you could hear a change in the assemblage and volume of calls – several weeks concentrated down to a two minute of sound-bite.

a) Picture of a cicada to break up the text, b) reason why night field work >>>> day field work


For a while now I’ve felt that there is a lot of compatibility between the goals of scientists and artists: deconstruction and/or construction of patterns of the world around us in order to draw connections between disparate points or to sever outdated connections between ideas. The Age of Enlightenment was defined by attempts to organise the world and saw the rise of natural history and taxonomy through the likes of Carl Linnaeus. During this same period, Johann Sebastian Bach went about composition like a true encyclopaedist, putting together the Das Wohltemperierte Klavier (“The well-tempered clavier”), a collection of preludes and fugues written in every key.

Obvious joke about how Carl (Righ
Obvious joke about how Johann (left) and Carl (right) go to the same hairdresser


Of course, since then the intellectual zeitgeist has gone to several cycles of reaction and revolution but in every period, regardless of the artistic/scientific landscape, scientists and artists are digging deeper into things than most normal people would think sensible and going “hang on, this is cool.”

There’s something very musical about the wax and wane of the cicada chorus over the summer with the interchange of dominant patterns and gentle fade towards the end of the season. But then again, there is a growing field in ecology which is trying to use recording as an efficient way of surveying species diversity with the outlook that a complex community translates into a diverse soundscape (Google “ecoacoustics” or “soundscape ecology”). If science can be driven by a need to find patterns which can make policy possible then art can be about taking disparate components to make something moving.

And it happens in the weirdest places. I saw this go by on twitter the other day. They (who are they?) have found that using sound waves to distort growth media makes it possible to organise cells without rupturing the cells themselves. This obviously has useful applications for growth of tissues in the lab but it also creates beautiful patterns.

Because who wouldn’t want a paisley liver?


Advanced Materials, DOI: 10.1002/adma.201402079
Advanced Materials, DOI: 10.1002/adma.201402079