Saturday, 31 July 2010


Let's go for a random walk. Take steps through the day and see where they lead. Or don't. How they pace and place time. Make sense. Or willfully won't. Plant thoughts which blaze like wildfire and light the mind's sky.

The walk begins like this. With words which spill into the coffee-swirl-beginning of the day. How long is it reasonable to hold a grudge? That's what he asks. Do you think 30 years is too long? It's a lifetime I reply. And he tells the story of his thesis in which he wrote a theory which his professor said was impossible and that he was going to fail him. But this bright boy wouldn't give up. Get real, he said to his professor. Get with it.

Makes you wonder. This confidence. The happenstance of discovery. The application too.
How it can defy belief because it's against the grain of time. Get with it, says the boy again. Get real. Repeats his theory, which now is the basis for our understanding about electrical pulses, and graces every text book. Let's go for a random walk, he says.

In a corner of Eastern Europe there is a country where the book is king. Where in the capital city, a giant book presides over its citizens on a sky-high plinth, like Nelson's column. Its pages are open, and in the bridge into the city the name of the book is inscribed on the arches, like an incantation. To belong to this city, you have to be able to recite the words of the book by heart. And naturally, the author of the book is the country's dictator - his words writ large. Get real. Get with it.

Like Isaac Newton did. Put gravity into the forcefield of our consciousness, however much we dream at night that we can fly through the air like bullets fired by destiny. But then Newton renounced physics to become Master of the Mint. Turning his mind to figuring out how to prevent forgery. And theft. Stop the slivering off of bits of silver from the coins of the royal mint. Made a true likeness of the monarch, rather than a blob of ill-conceived recognition. He borrowed from the Florentines, it is true, but he revolutionised coinage as much as he did physics too. From physics to finance - a numbers game - and not such a short random walk after all. Logical steps of persuasion, of experimentation and of audacity. Of a wish to make a mark and make it good. Get real, even. Get real.

But then Newton tricks us all with alchemy and becomes its most impassioned devotee. Walking the line between art and science, mystery and the explained, the unproven and the proven

Look up random walk, and then you discover a term which traverses many terrains. In physics, random walks are an essential part of quantum theory. In finance, stock market prices evolve according to a random walk and thus they can never be predicted. In computer science, random walks are used to estimate the size of the web. In neuro-science, the firing of neurons. And during World War II, a random walk was used to model the distance that an escaped prisoner of war would travel in a given time.

Get real. The random walk is as random as its name suggests. It measures and unmeasures. It speculates and determines. It fixes and dissolves. It prooves and disproves.

And so back to the boy, who is now a man. The boy who tells me about Newton and the Royal mint. About the grudge which still grips him. The man who said no to him. That his insight was too random. A walk on the wild side. Which led him to Wall Street. And science. And calculating the mass of a neutron stars, and so much more. Nothing is certain on a random walk. Purposefully purposeless. Purposelessly purposeful. Even the steps we make. Let alone the paths we take. Let's go for a walk. Expecting everything and nothing. Who knows what or where?

Lightening cracks open a sky as fragile as an egg. Rain etcha-sketches the air. A splash at my heels. An umbrella falls from above as if heaven sent. A drowned, wingless crow in this storm, splayed in a puddle. Then a hand. Pick up. An apology. A stretch-flex and push. Umbrella up. A suspended coracle above my head. Nudged in. Warm eyes. Cold breath. A brief respite. Then sudden parting. Just as swift. Slaloming through the spears of rain. He on his way, me mine. Driven by rain drops and the desire to cut through. Who knows how. Where. Or when, if ever, again.

Sunday, 11 July 2010


We all have music under our skin. We can't hear it. We can't feel it. But it beats in our blood and pulses our being. It's the music of the stars contained in our bodies held within the scaffolding of our bones. Part of Boethius's vision of music in De Musica - musica universalis, musica humana, musica instrumentalatis, musica divina - the sounds of existence. A cosmic numerology which is the data of our creation, creativity, making and doing.

That's what experiments here at the LHC at CERN with the sonification of data make me think of. They have been putting the sound of particles colliding into audio - blasting our appreciation of what makes us to a new dimension. Instead of only looking at the great visual splashes of particles colliding on a computer screen, which are radiant with data, scientists have also been playing with sound - the auditory waves of the universe - to complete our fields of perception. Slower than the speed of light, nevertheless sound waves are the most accurate way of telling time - of appreciating and comprehending the intervals of existence - the micro-milliseconds in which particles move. The ear is quicker than the eye to recognise the nuances of simultaneity, the near miss, the hit, the interactions, and defractions - grasping more fully and truly than the eye, which is a blunt tool for time.

Go to LHC Sound and you will hear some of the work which is happening at the largest of the CERN experiments, ATLAS, led by University College London physicist Dr Lily Asquith working with musician and programmer Ed Chocolate. LHC Sound as it is called, is the software development phase and already composers and musicians have been emailing them for sound files. It is primarily an analysis tool for the outpouring of data at the LHC - but it is also a way of eavesdropping on what is happening. A cosmic musical whispering which has been funded by the Science and Technology Funding Council to capture also the imaginations of the public.

But the LHC Sound at ATLAS work isnt the only work with sound at CERN. Along the 27km elipsis which is the LHC, other experiments such as ALICE are experimenting with sonification of data too, as heard in the piece I did for Radio 3 earlier this year. Have a listen and you can hear the sound of ionisation of electrons on Kathi Voght's site - . Then you realise that aesthetics comes into this too. What choice of tone do you make to represent the sounds of science?

Particles physics is not the only science latching onto the possibilities of sound. A whole work has just been composed by composer Michael Zev Gordon working with musician-anethatist Dr Andrew Morley based on the individual sequencing of the DNA of each member of a 40 strong choir. Singers are literally singing their genes - and music pours out of it. The connections with contemporary music composition ring in your ears. It is being performed at the Royal Society of Medicine in London on July 13th 2010 and is fittingly called Allele.

So in the age of the visual, which we hold in our hands on our iPads and iPhones and can touch the world into being unfurled before us with a tap of ours fingers before our very eyes, the audio universe is staging its own revolution in perception too, taking us back to who we really are. A note of existence. A beat in time. It sounds like the music of the spheres all over again.