Marine microbes make musical waves

Music may be the newest addition to a science communicator’s toolbox. A PLOS ONE paper published today describes an algorithm that represents terabytes of microbial and environmental data in tunes that sound remarkably like modern jazz.

Microbial bebop”, as the authors describe it, is created using five years’ worth of consecutive measurements of ocean microbial life and environmental factors like temperature, dissolved salts and chlorophyll concentrations. These diverse, extensive data are only a subset of what scientists have been recording at the Western Channel Observatory since 1903.

As first author Larsen explained to the Wired blogs, “It’s my job to take complex data sets and find ways to represent that data in a way that makes the patterns accessible to human observations. There’s no way to look at 10,000 rows and hundreds of columns and intuit what’s going on.”

Each of the four compositions in the paper is derived from the same set of data, but highlights different relationships between the environmental conditions of the ocean and the microbes that live in these waters.

“There are certain parameters like sunlight, temperature or the concentration of phosphorus in the water that give a kind of structure to the data and determine the microbial populations. This structure provides us with an intuitive way to use music to describe a wide range of natural phenomena,” explains Larsen in an Argonne National Laboratories article.

Speaking to Living on Earth, Larsen describes how their music highlights the relationship between different kinds of data. “In most of the pieces that we have posted, the melody is derived from a numerical measurement, such that the lowest measure is the lowest note and the highest measure is the highest note. The other component is the chords. And the chords map to a different component of the data.”

As a result, the music generated from microbial abundance data played to chords generated from phosphorus concentration data will sound quite different from the same microbial data played to chords derived from temperature data.

“Songs themselves probably are never going to actively replace, you know, the bar graph for data analysis, but I think that this kind of translation of complex data into a very accessible format is an opportunity to lead people who probably aren’t highly aware of the importance of microbial ecology in the ocean, and give them a very appealing entry into this kind of data”, explained Larsen in the same interview with Living on Earth.

Though their primary intent was to create novel way to symbolize the interactions of microbes in the ocean, the study also suggests that microbial bebop may eventually have applications in crowd-sourcing solutions to complex environmental issues.

For further reading, a PLOS ONE paper in 2010 demonstrated that the metaphors used to explain a problem could have a powerful impact on people’s thoughts and decisions when designing solutions. Could re-phrasing complex environmental data in music lead to solutions we haven’t heard yet? As you ponder the question, listen to some microbial bebop!

Other media sources that also covered this research include LiveScience, gizmag and the PLOS blog Tooth and Claw

Citations:  Larsen P, Gilbert J (2013) Microbial Bebop: Creating Music from Complex Dynamics in Microbial Ecology. PLoS ONE 8(3): e58119. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0058119

Thibodeau PH, Boroditsky L (2011) Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning. PLoS ONE 6(2): e16782. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0016782

Image: sheet music by jamuraa on Flickr


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