The Radioactive Orchestra

| October 12, 2011

Visualize how energy moves, specifically, radioactive energy. Difficult? We know that a microwave oven emits radiation (and it’s not good for us). We know that atoms decay at different rates. But imagining what these processes look like? Difficult…unless you come up with a really creative audio-visual data art project called the Radioactive Orchestra. Liselotte Herlitz of a nuclear safety team in Sweden called KSU, teamed up with musicians Axel Boman and Kristofer Hagbard to do just that.

How It All Works

Radioactive isotopes are variants of an element with slightly different atomic weights. Currently, 3,175 isotopes are known and they each have a different decay pattern. Herlitz, who is a visual artist (he originally made a video series for the KSU team), took the energy loss between each level of a decaying element, from its excited nuclear state to its ground state, and translated it into hertz. Making these distinct audio impressions is possible because when an isotope brings itself to a lower state, it emits a gamma ray. An audio impression is made of that gamma ray. Thus, each “sonic fingerprint” is unique because each isotope has a unique decay pattern. These isotopic frequencies, represented as notes with different pitches, can then be used to make music.

The Radioactive Orchestra was developed into an online application for anybody, where users can pick up to five isotope frequencies, place them on virtual mixing board and edit their pitch and tempo. A visual music video of sorts is also automatically played to the left of the mixing board. These beats can then be saved and shared. Watch the video above or this one to hear some of the music created from these isotopes by Hagbard and Boman, who listened to hundreds of them, chose the ones most artistically pleasing, and edited them (with a few added engineered sounds to contextualize them a bit more).

What It Means

Until now, no music has used actual isotopic frequencies. In an article by FoxNews Herlitz said, “As far as we know this is the first time in history where radiation is translated to something quite tangible. It’s a way of showing that radiation does not have to be harmful.” Well, it’s at least a way of showing that information about the radioactive process can be turned into something beautiful, playful, and engaging.

The same FoxNews article discusses Herlitz’ vision for many of the hard sciences–“which seek to understand the early universe, climate change, astronomical movements and more–to be visualized through the use of music, artistic photography, and other mediums.” Turning science to art might also just as easily distract from the dangerous consequences of processes but the point here, is that science can in fact be interpreted through art. Though the radioactive decay process doesn’t produce any visuals or sounds of its own, technology can be used to interpret it into aesthetic, sensory experiences for people. Pretty powerful.