Genetic Cage Scores

As we are preparing possible project ideas for our class next Spring, I had a chance to explore a simple Cage score (after John Cage) using as a driver not chance but genetic code.  Gene sequencing has exploded in the past few decades thanks to advancements in technologies and techniques, creating an entire industry (with occasionally dubious aims).  The pace of this advancement is remarkable:  the Human Genome Project took 13 years to construct a full sequence of the human genetic code from 1990-2003, at a cost of $3 billion; the same sequencing can now be done in 1 day for $1000.

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Astronomy readings for TDDE 131

In preparation for our Spring 2013 course, here are some of my recommended Astronomy/Physics readings/viewings:

Shhh. Listen to the Data (Toni Feder, in Physics Today, 65, 20, 2012; published by the American Institute of Physics): describes how massive astronomical datasets are being transformed into sound to listen for distinctive patterns.

The Fingerprints of Stars (YouTube, on PhD TV, created by Jorge Cham): a complete overview in animated comic style on how we know what we know about stars, based on interviews with John Johnson and his group at Caltech.

Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps (Kees Boeke, 1957, published by The John Day Company): The inspiration for Ray & Charles Eames more famous Powers of 10 movie (they also have an extensive website), this book provides both a numerical context and hand drawings of various size scales in the Universe.  Note that some of the ideas presented in this book no longer hold true (e.g., that galaxies are uniformly distributed through the Universe). An interactive version of this idea has also been created recently by Cary Huang at this website.

The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives (Leonard Mlodinow, 2008, published by Pantheon Books): This is a wonderful book about randomness, numbers and probability, and really you could read the whole thing in a day and learn tons. For this class I recommend focusing in particular Chapter 7: Measurement and the Law of Errors (pp. 124-145) and Chapter 9: Illusions of Patterns and Patterns of Illusions (pp. 169-191).

Creating Hubble’s Technicolor Universe (Ray Villard and Zoltan Levay, in Sky & Telescope, September 2002, pp. 28-34): This article describes some of the tricks of the trade for how Hubble Space Telescope is used to create stunning views of the Universe.  The Hubble website provides some more detailed primers on astronomical image processing, a tool called FITS Liberator and step-by-step guide for reading in and manipulating standard astronomical FITS (Flexible Information Transport System) files, and some sample datasets.  These tools can be used as part of a “contest” by Hubble to help citizen scientists find Hidden Treasures in the Hubble Archive.

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TDDE 131: Special Topics in Design: Project Planetaria

The course is on! We just got our Spring 2013 course listed online; now time to grab willing and eager students (and finish up the syllabus).  Check back to the website where we’ll be posting class materials!

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PP’s First Installation: Solar Variations

Project Planetaria had its first installation in September 2012 with “Solar Variations”, an exploration of the variability of the Sun though light and sound.  The piece was on display during the opening of the new Experimental Media Lab in UCSD’s Visual Arts Department.

In this interactive video and sound installation, we explore themes we have been investigating over the past several months, including transsensory perception, participatory experience, remote perspective, and live performance.  The piece was comprised of several interacting components:

  • Two photodiode sensors were placed on the west-facing window of the Lab, with red and blue filters positioned in front of them.  These diodes drove square-wave generators attached to speakers, producing dissonant sounds with differing frequencies. As the sun set and its color move toward the red end of the visible electromagnetic spectrum due to refraction, the sound produced shifted in tone and volume: an audio representation of the setting sun.
  • A repeating loop of the previous month of UV imaging data of the Sun taken with the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) was generated using the free java program JHelioviewer.  The Sun makes one rotation every 24 (equator) to 34 (poles) days, so this cycle represented roughly one “day” of the Sun.  UV radiation is invisible to our eyes, so the visualization of the SDO data is one example of sensory transformation.  The movie was also embedded in a “sunset” scene from the surface of Mars taken by the NASA Rover Spirit in 2005; as such the audience simultaneously experienced sunsets on two worlds.
  • The television screen output was masked by an black overlay whose transparency depended on the ambient noise in the room.  Hence, the real-time setting of the actual Sun erases the appearance of the SDO UV Solar movie.
  • Naturally, any sound from observers of this piece would also reveal the UV Solar movie, so audience members were encouraged to bring the movie into being by talking, yelling, clapping, etc. after the real Sun had set.  They themselves were also embedded in the movie through a camera with a difference image filter.


The overall result was a participatory experience which embodied video and audio interaction between observer and herself, the Sun and itself, and the observer and the Sun.

This exercise represents our first exploration of the themes that arise in direct interaction and interpretation of astronomical phenomena and data. We expanded upon many of these themes with student designers in our Spring 2013 workshop class.


The Space of Now

space-of-now-varies-by-perceptual-modeThe other night I was having dinner with my wife and my neighbor, discussing the concept of “living in the now”. Bah! My cold physicist brain immediately dismissed such new age nonsense.  We cannot possibly live in the “now” because all of the sensory input of our surroundings comes from the past, not the present. Information travels at a finite speed, be it via light (300,000 kilometers per second, or roughly 1 foot per nanosecond1), sound (340 meters per second, or about 1 foot per millisecond 1), or someone’s very strong perfume (about 3 millimeters in an hour if it is simply diffusion, but nearly instantaneous if you are on a plane). Looking at my wife, I was seeing her as she appeared 3 nanoseconds in the past; listening to my neighbor, I heard a story she told 3 milliseconds ago; and the full moon bearing down on us was merely a mirage from the distant past – all of 1 second ago. My experience at that dinner table was a hodge-podge of the asynchronous past.

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Beauty of Data

Last week, Netherlands-based freelance editor and aspiring director Sander van den Berg created a beautiful video merging the image sequences of Jupiter and Saturn from the Voyager and Cassini missions to music from That Home. The images, some older than 30 years, are part of a massive repository of data collected by NASA and freely available to anyone with enough bandwidth and storage space.

In van den Berg’s hands, the raw footage becomes a mesmerizing sequence of vignettes set against the largest planets in our solar system. One cannot help but make an emotional connection in the jostling of clouds around Saturn’s North Pole to the hustle and bustle of our daily grind; the light touch of shepharding moons as they gracefully perturb Saturn’s rings illicits a heartfelt yearning for a lover or a lost friend; and the loneliness of two moons, passing each other in silence in their eternal dance is palpable. And despite the alien grandeur, the roughness of the images reminds us that these scenes are common and ordinary, played out for eons past and in eons future, long after the human drama has been eclipsed.

Scientific data is often viewed as cold, hard facts, devoid of sentiment or subjectivity. Van den Berg shows that data that looks upon our Universe also reflects on our humanity, and rejuvenates our connection to the natural world.

Astronomical Synesthesia


Radio image of the Crab Nebula: an example of astronomical information that can be neither seen nor heard directly

The image to the left is a radio picture of the Crab Nebula, the debris field from a massive supernova explosion that was recorded by astronomers in 1054 AD. These data come from 11 hours of observations made by a large array of metal dishes called, uncreatively, the Very Large Array. In this image, we see the structure of the debris as it streams away from the explosion site at 1000 kilometers per second, energized by radiation and winds coming from the remnant of the long-dead star, a spinning ball of neutrons 10 km wide and more massive than our Sun.

Except, we don’t actually see anything.

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Little Gold Star

The Sun’s mini-doppleganger on asphalt

The Sun’s mini-doppleganger on asphalt

I’ve gotten to thinking about scales of the Universe, which are so vast as to be unimaginable to our tiny little human bodies.  Consider our own home star, the Sun.  At a whopping 1.4 million kilometers across, the Great Golden Orb is just an average-sized star, an insignificant dwarf in comparison to super gas bags like VY Canis Majoris. And while that nice warm Sun hanging up in the sky might seem as close as we’d like it, it’s still 150 million kilometers away. By the way, this distance is called the Astronomical Unit, or AU, perhaps the least concise unit ever created.  With gas prices remaining high, the Sun won’t be a vacation destination for our family anytime soon.

In science, we have all sorts of tricks in dealing with big numbers.  One way is to use scientific notation.  For example, 1.4 million converts into the ambiguously pronounced 1.4 x 106 – is that thing in the middle a “times”, a “cross” or a “here be the gold matey, arrrrr”? We can also invent a new unit that’s really big, so that you don’t have to deal with as many of them.  For example, 6 million dollars might sound like a lot of money, but if it’s all in 1 million bills, it’s only 6 (“alas, noone seems to be able to break this million dollar bill”).

None of these options makes cosmic scales any more approachable.  So we can instead just take these big numbers and force them to be small, scaling our vast universe into something tangible, something we can hold in our hand. Something like a little gold sticky star (image above).

That’s right, welcome back to grade 2.  Did you do well on your spelling test?  Very good, here’s a Sun for you.  All one glorious inch of it. On asphalt (I happened to be at a bus stop when I thought of this post). You know, you’re the best student in class, but just don’t tell anyone else, ok?


Measuring distance

We humans can certainly contemplate one inch, so how does the rest of our cosmos scale in comparison?  All we need to do is apply a ratio of 1.4 million kilometers : 1 inch to all of our distances, and we can go to town. Here’s some examples:

Distance between the Sun and the Earth: 1 AU –> 107 inches, or about 9 feet. This seems like an appropriate amount of personal space between the Sun and the Earth, but with traffic going by I’m having a hard time making conversation. Perhaps it’s for the best.

Distance between the Sun and the edge of the Solar System: that’s about 100 AU, which converts to 900 feet – 1/6th of a mile – in gold star universe.  That’s roughly the distance from my house to the bus stop. I have to cross a train track to get to and from my bus stop, but I can professionally assert that there is no train running across the Solar System, so I think we’re safe.

Distance to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri: that’s about 4.3 light-years, where a light-year is the distance light travels in a year.  This works out to be a gargantuan number, about 10 trillion kilometers.  Light has the highest frequent flyer status on every airline.  Come to think about it, this is about the same number as our national debt.  Perhaps we should start measuring our debt in light-dollars?  I digress.  In any case, in our little gold star cosmos, the nearest star is 480 miles away.  Yup, that’s right, Proxima Centauri is in Stockton.  That’s a pretty long bus ride.  I hope we stop for lunch.

Distance to the other side of the Galaxy. Let’s take a real trip!  Only 100,000 light-years to go!  What’s that you say? Even in our mini-verse we’ll have to travel 3 million miles, which is to the Moon and back 5 times? Can I get upgraded?

So our little gold star-i-verse does bring some things down to a scale that’s at least contemplatible.  But perhaps we’ve gone too far, because our humble little planet Earth on this scale is only 0.01 inches across, about 0.2 mm – this is a grain of fine sand.  Not terribly impressive of a planet anymore.  The city of San Diego? 1/2 of a micrometer, about the size of a virus (let the metaphors commence).  And me?  I’m a whopping 30 picometers head to tail, about the size of a single atom.  Maybe that’s why my name is, in fact, Adam?

Even more weirdness persists if we think about how we move in our mini-cosmos.  Remember that light travels at the easily-remembered “speed of light”, which is about 300,000 kilometers every second.  If time doesn’t change in our new universe, that means that light travels a whopping 1/2 centimeter every second, or about a foot a minute. To go from our mini-Sun to the Earth (9 feet away remember), it would take a thrill-pumping 9 minutes to make it.  Wow, that would be an exciting video! [note to collaborators: do not give Adam a video camera].  In fact, in the real Universe, it really does take sunlight somewhere between 8 and 9 minutes to reach us here on Earth, giving the Universe plenty of time to edit out swear words and “wardrobe malfunctions”.

Which leads us to the illuminating revelation of this blog post: if you want to walk from San Diego to Stockton taking one step every minute, it would take you about 4.3 years to do it.

Best just to take the bus.

Photo credits: Adam Burgasser, Amelia Christensen 
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