A scientist is turning every element in the periodic table into music
Asegun Henry, a mechanical engineer at Georgia Tech is putting together the catalogue the unique ‘musical’ signatures of every element on the period table by setting them to music so that the scientists need not solely depend on words or diagrams to comprehend the differences between the molecular structure for solids, liquids and gases.
“My hope is that it will be an interesting tool to teach the periodic table, but also to give people some notion about the idea that the entire Universe is moving around and making noise,” Henry told Gizmodo. “You just can’t hear it.”
So, why does every chemical element have a unique musical signature? As everything in the Universe is made up of atoms that are in a constant state of motion, the speed at which these atoms vibrate within the bonds between larger molecules, will give a solid, liquid, gas, or plasma.
These vibrations – or ‘waves’ – define the specific properties of an element, such as its thermal conductivity and density, so the better our understanding of how atoms are zooming around, the more we will know about the abilities of a particular element.
“How the energy of the interaction changes with respect to the distance between the molecules dictates a lot of the physics,” said Henry. “We have to slow down the vibrations of the atoms so you can hear them, because they’re too fast, and at too high frequencies,” he adds. “But you’ll be able to hear the difference between something low on the periodic table and something like carbon that’s very high. One will sound high-pitched, and one will sound low.”
Scientists in the past have discovered important properties of elements by employing different senses, which is what the idea is based on. Sometimes, the movements of molecules within an element can sometimes be so short-lived or subtle, that you will never be locate them just by looking at the visual data. However, a small “ping” or a change in tone could make all the change.
While it might sound like a fun little project, it’s actually a time-tested technique that was used in a project at CERN called LHCSound to analyse the data from particle collisions, which allowed physicists to detect subatomic particles by ear.
Henry is doing something similar. He has used it to recognize new properties in polymers that do not show up in simulations and computer models of atomic vibrations.
Gizmodo explains: “The simulated polymer becomes thermally superconductive – that is, capable of transporting heat with no resistance, much like the existing class of superconducting materials that conduct electricity without resistance (albeit at very low temperatures). …
Henry and [graduate student, Wei] Lv successfully identified three vibrational modes out of all those thousands that were responsible for the phenomenon. But the usual analysis techniques – like plotting the amplitudes of the modes over time in a visual graph – didn’t reveal anything noteworthy.
It wasn’t until they decided to sonify the data that they pinpointed what was going on. This involved mapping pitch, timbre, and amplitude onto the data to translate it into a kind of molecular music.”
Henry has published his use of sonification in a recent paper in the Journal of Applied Physics, and has applied for a National Science Foundation grant to create his catalogue into an educational app, so that we can not only hear the musical signatures, but also can make our own molecular music.