College of Sciences faculty, student get funding for imaginative ways to connect science and art
Dec 19, 2017 | Atlanta, GA
Zhigang Peng wants you to hear Earth’s rumblings. Kenji Bomar wants to capture the exquisite beauty of the air around objects. Jennifer Leavey would like to spice up science instruction with sprinklings of punk rock science lyrics.
These projects are among 16 that recently won funding from the Creative Curricular Initiatives (CCI) of the Georgia Tech Office of the Arts and the Georgia Tech Council of the Arts. CCI aims to support members of the Tech community who are interested in exploring the connection between the arts and sciences. On top of funding, awardees will also receive mentoring in designing, evaluating, and sustaining their projects.
A professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Zhigang Peng studies earthquakes and collects seismic data from all over the world.
One of the things Peng does with seismic data is to “sonify” them – that is, make them audible to human ears. His “earthquake music” collection includes sonifications of not only earthquakes but also of meteor impacts and nuclear tests. His sonification of the 2011 Japanese earthquake based on seismic data recorded in California has made it to the top 10 videos in Georgia Tech’s YouTube channel. By sonifying seismic data, Peng enables us to hear Earth’s vibrations that are otherwise inaudible and enables researchers to elucidate the physics of earthquakes and the processes that trigger them.
For the CCI project, Peng will extend sonification to other fields of Earth and planetary sciences, with help from School of Music Professor Jason Freeman. “I would like to convert scientific data into sound tracks and videos that people can enjoy and easily understand,” Peng says.” He is excited about using sound, because “previously art and science have been connected mostly through images or visual products. Converting scientific data into audible ranges provides a new domain of communication.”
An avid photographer, second-year physics major Kenji Bomar will focus his camera on air that is usually invisible, for example, the air currents around a burning candle tip or a warm hand. To capture these images, he will use a technique called Schlieren imaging.
“Schlieren imaging is used in laboratory settings to observe density and temperature gradients in fluids,” Bomar says. “The images produced by Schlieren imaging are very organic, adding a layer of sincerity to the art, which will largely focus on themes of creativity, passion, and bonds with loved ones.”
Although Schlieren imaging is primarily used in research, “the images created are so uniquely beautiful,” Bomar says. “Beauty isn’t limited by discipline. All it takes is a little ingenuity to find something truly enchanting.”
Bomar plans to assemble the Schlieren apparatus in January 2018, complete photography by February, and exhibit photographs in April. The project will be an individual effort. However, Bomer says, “advice on the Schlieren apparatus will come from various Georgia Tech faculty, and inspiration for the photos will come from a variety of sources, including other Georgia Tech students.”
EDGY TAKES ON SCIENCE
Meanwhile, Jennifer Leavey will use CCI funding to extend the reach of nontraditional means to communicate science through irreverent stories and punk rock lyrics. Leavey is a senior academic professional in the School of Biological Sciences and is the College of Sciences’ coordinator of the integrated science curriculum. She also directs Georgia Tech’s Urban Honeybee Project.
As the genetically modified clone Leucine Zipper, Leavey does lead vocals for the punk rock science band she and others created in 2013 – Leucine Zipper and Zinc Fingers, named after biologically important protein motifs – for the Atlanta Science Festival.
“We’ve written an album’s worth of original songs,” Leavey says. “The lyrics align with fundamental concepts in chemistry, biology, and physics.”
For example, the song "Entropy," which the band performed in the 2017 Atlanta Science Festival, begins with these lyrics:
Why are you always trying to organize things?
Can’t you understand simple entropy?
Why put order, where it’s not meant to be?
You can’t control atoms, and you can’t control me
Entropy: atomic anarchy (x 4)
Leavey would like to incorporate the band’s music in science instruction. She will use CCI funding to create audio and video recordings for class use.
In a separate CCI project, Leavey will create print copies of Charged, a science magazine she founded in 2012 and is now available only online. Contributors include students enrolled in Leavey’s STEM communications class.
The magazine encourages contributors to write personal accounts of how science or the study of science affects them or to explain complicated topics “in an edgy, irreverent, creative way.” Stories should be fun and easy to read, like those in an entertainment or fashion magazine, but should not insult the reader’s intelligence.
“I am investigating the impact of creative science writing on attitudes toward science and persistence in STEM careers,” Leavey says. Through a print edition, students will not only write but also design layout and illustrations.
Zhigang Peng and Earthquake Music
When seismic data, recorded in California, from the 2002, magnitude 7.9 earthquake in Alaska are played 200 times faster than normal, humans can hear what they sound. The primary P wave becomes audible, sounding like distant thunder, while the tremor signals triggered by the earthquake’s surface wave sound like a rattlesnake.