“Science on Saturday” Goes to 11

This weekend I had the honour and privilege of being the first speaker for the 2019 Ronald E Hatcher Science on Saturday series of lectures held at, and organised by, Princeton’s PPL (Plasma Physics Laboratory).  I’ll let PPPL themselves explain what Science On Saturday is all about:

Science on Saturday is a series of lectures given by scientists, engineers, and other professionals involved in cutting-edge research. Held on Saturday mornings throughout winter, the lectures are geared toward high school students. The program draws more than 300 students, teachers, parents, and community members. Topics are selected from a variety of disciplines.

Named after the late Ronald E Hatcher, who ran and hosted the series for many years, Science on Saturday is a fun way to bring physics (and other lesser sciences) to the general public(s) and other scientists alike. I was bowled over by the enthusiasm and engagement of the audience, who braved a bracing Saturday morning to hear about the connections between Sabbath, Stryper, and Schrödinger.  (The free bagels and coffee before the talk were, I’m sure, not entirely incidental in attracting the audience. I certainly can vouch for the quality of the pre-lecture consumables.) The Q&A session at the end ran for over an hour, with many insightful questions from the audience, whose age range seemed to span ~ 9 to 90 years young!

A number of those who were in the audience e-mailed me after the talk to ask for a copy of the slides. I’ve uploaded them to SlideShare (sans videos, regrettably) to make them publicly available here:

 

Andrew Zwicker has been the energetic and entertaining host for Science on Saturday for, if I recall correctly, more years than he cares to remember. In parallel with his career in physics, Andrew has successfully forayed into politics, as outlined at his Wikipedia page. Before the lecture he told me about an exciting scheme to encourage more early career researchers into politics. I thoroughly understand the reticence of many scientists to get involved with the political sphere — my involvement with the Royal Society MP-Scientist pairing scheme a number of years ago was an eye-opener in terms of the mismatch that can exist between political and scientific mindsets — but we need to bite the bullet and dive in*, especially in an era when hard scientific evidence is so readily dismissed as “fake news”. (Apologies. Make that “FAKE NEWS” and add any number of exclamation marks to taste.)

On the day of my Science on Saturday lecture, a white supremacist march had been mooted to be held in Princeton (not the most likely of venues, it fortunately has to be said, for that type of hatemongering.) In the end, the basement dwellers never turned up — they claimed that it was a hoax. But the counter-protesters attended in their heart-warming hundreds…

I’d like to offer a very big thank you both to Andrew for the invitation to speak at “Science on Saturday” and to DeeDee Ortiz, the Program Manager for Science Education at PPPL, for organising the visit. A similarly massive thank you to Lori for all of her help and organisation, including providing the key musical “props” used during the lecture.


*Excuse the mixed metaphor. I love mixed metaphors. This, taken from Leon Lederman’s “The God Particle” as an example of writing by one of his PhD students, is my very favourite: “This field of physics is so virginal that no human eyeball has ever set foot in it.” (That quote tickles me so much that I use it as part of the introduction to the final year Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics  module here at Nottingham.)

Science Friction Braves The Pit Again

A very short post to say a massive thank you to Natasha Mitchell and Raphael Dixon (of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation) for putting together the video trailer below. As Natasha put it, “Watch until the very end if you’re the real deal .”

Science Friction in the moshpit

I had such a great time chatting with Natasha Mitchell, host of the Australian Broadcasting Company’s wonderful Science Friction programme, about metal, moshers, and mechanics (of the quantum variety)[1]…

Wonderful choice of an enthusiastically headbanging L7 for Natasha’s tweet there. L7 may not have been metal but they rocked a hell of a lot harder than some metal bands whose gigs I’ve attended. (In case the link in the tweet doesn’t work, the podcast of the interview is here.)

Also not metal — but one of my favourite bands nonetheless — is the quintessentially British XTC. Science friction burns my fingers

[1] Dammit. Now kicking myself not to have worked a suitably strained reference to quantum mechanix into the interview…

 

A Patter of Podcasts*

* Following extensive research — the best part of three whole minutes on Google — there shockingly appears not to be a collective noun for podcasts. Henceforth, I’m using “patter”. Given at least one OED definition of the word, I think it fits.

I’ve been very fortunate — if I were a religious man, I’d say “blessed” — to have had the support of not only the fantastic marketing team at Ben Bella (including, in particular, Lindsay Marshall) but a number of colleagues and friends when it comes to “plugging” that book I’ve recently written.

I don’t want to turn Symptoms… into a series of adverts for ‘Uncertainty to 11′ — and I won’t. Promise. I’ve got a stack of non-book-related posts coming up if I can ever find time — but I’ve done a series of podcasts and interviews recently that I’ve enjoyed so much I wanted to say a public thank you to all those involved (including Lindsay for setting up and coordinating the majority.) I’ve already blogged about The Aussie Pink Floyd pinkcast and The Death Hangout, and there are a few other podcasts to be uploaded/broadcast in future that I’ll blog about (briefly) in due course, but for now…

The Unmade Podcast

Unmade…” is the brainchild of Brady Haran, with whom I’ve worked just a little over the last decade or so, and Tim Hein. The premise is that they chat about ideas for podcasts that might get made, but probably never will. Occasionally, they invite a guest or two on to join in the conversation and come up with their own ideas for podcast themes. Not only did Brady and Tim let me do that — although, as I noted in the podcast, I can’t claim credit for all of the suggestions I made — but they very kindly let me waffle on at length about that bloody book…

Ikonokast

Although the Ikonokast podcast with Greg Laden and his co-host Mike Haubrich started off on that Spinal Tap-inspired theme, we diverged from there quite quickly and chatted about a much broader variety of academic (and non-academic) concerns than just the metal-quantum interface…

Coincidentally, that piece of metal that opens up the Ikonokast conversation (and closes the Unmade podcast) is something called The Root Of All Things that I recorded a while ago as background music for a video. I’m hoping to find time to expand this short piece, with the help of a few musician (and scientist-cum-musician) friends, to a full-blown nano-themed sci-fi metal track over the course of the next year or so. (After all, there’s EPSRC funding to do so.) For now, however, that piece has found its place as backing music for some of Pete McPartlan’s wonderfully quirky animations and art…

The Quantum Podcast

height_90_width_90_15817639_1066803776798865_1271 The Uncertainty Principle and Metal

Maria, the host, is a second year undergraduate physics student who explains a variety of topics covered in her degree via her podcast. We had a fun time discussing everything from Devin Townsend to string theory and the state-of-the-art in theoretical physics. The latter is a theme I’m going to return to very soon here at Symptoms… (and elsewhere) in the context of Sabine Hossenfelder‘s impassioned, sharp, and brilliant critique of the state of 21st century physics, “Lost In Math“. If you have any interest at all in physics, you owe it to yourself to go get Hossenfelder’s book.

Sci-gasm

I spent most of this podcast trying to stop laughing. Byrne and Wade, your genial hosts, are both very funny guys. Unfortunately, when tasked, I failed spectacularly to come up with a musician joke on the spot. Usually I fall back on one of the drummer classics — “How can you tell a drummer’s at the door? The knocking speeds up” — but it was clearly too early in the morning and/or insufficient caffeine had been imbibed.


A big thank-you to Brady, Tim, Greg, Mike, Maria, Byrne, and Wade for the invitation to join them for a natter.

Metallizing and Melodifying Phi

Apologies for the radio silence on the blog of late. I’ll be posting more regularly in the coming days/weeks. For now, this one is a bit of a blast from the past. Over six years ago (gulp), Brady Haran and I collaborated with the talented and prolific Dave Brown (boyinaband) on a suitably metallized rendition of a fundamental constant — the golden ratio, otherwise known as φ

MoriartyAs I’ve said during various talks about the metal-maths-physics interface (including this) over the years since that video was uploaded , some people buy a Porsche for their mid-life crisis. Mine involved attempting to reconnect with my — substantially less follicularly challenged, see image to right for pictorial evidence — halcyon heavy metal days…

At the time of uploading the video, I wrote the first blog post below. It’s been loitering at Brady’s, now discontinued, original blog for quite some time. I’m reblogging it here, along with another post from many moons ago on a more sedate rendering of φ (and its cousin τ).


Metallizing Phi

13 July 2012

Here are all the gory details for the musicians amongst you…

Guitar tuning: Bb F Bb Eb G C

(This is traditional “drop D” tuning, i.e. D A E D G B E, dropped two tones in order to approximate the math metal/Djent sound without a seven string guitar.).

We stick almost exclusively to riffs derived from the Bb harmonic minor scale (although the chorus is based around the natural Bb minor scale)

I used Guitar Rig to record the riffs (both clean and effected) which I then sent to Dave who used his studio wizardry and musical acumen to arrange and structure the song. This involved quite a number of e-mail exchanges to hone the structure of the song during which Dave had to rein in my old school metal tendencies on more than one occasion…

Riff-by-riff

0:00. We kick off with a clean picked piece which looks like this:

intro_riff_tab.gif

The digits of phi are “embedded” in the notes played on the 4th string. I make use of octaves and finger picking to embellish the riff.

0:08 Dave comes in with sixteenth note “chugs” (on Bb) which are timed to match the digits of phi (as explained in the video).

00:16 All hell breaks loose. Same idea as for ‘chug’ pattern starting at 0:08, except this time  matched by kick drums. (All drum programming by Dave – visit his website for tutorials on how he lays down those impressive drum tracks).

00:40 The riff for verse 1 is basically power chords given by the digits 161803398, as follows (where ^ represents a higher octave):

1 – Bb

6 – Gb

1 – Bb

8 – ^Bb

0 – ^Db

3 – Db

3 – Db

9 – ^C

8 – ^Bb

8 – ^Bb

00:55 The chorus is a similar idea but this time in Bb minor (not harmonic minor).

1 – Bb

6 – Gb

1 – Bb

8 – ^Bb

0 – [rest]

3 – Db

3 – Db

9 – ^C

8 – ^Bb

8 – ^Bb

7 – Ab

1:11 Here we switch to ‘encoding’ the [1 + sqrt (5)]/2 representation of phi in the riff. It’s a much more old school metal riff  and involves lots of use of the open sixth string (first note of the Bb harmonic minor scale) to incorporate ‘1’.

The digits of sqrt (5) are then encoded as shown in the tablature below.

I wanted to get a somewhat Mastodon-esque feel here so used lots of octaves (and slides into octaves).

I tried to down-pick as much as possible to ‘drive’ the riff . The ½ of (1+sqrt(5))/2 is built in as half-time on the drums.

sqrt5_riff_tab.gif

1:27. I very much wanted to have a heavily Tool-influenced riff in the song. Tool are math metal  pioneers and, as many of those who have watched the “Golden Ratio – Making a Math Metal Anthem” video have pointed out, their song Lateralus has lyrics which are based around the Fibonacci sequence. So, the following is my ‘homage’ to Tool…

Tool-y_riff_tab.gif

The digits of phi are encoded in the notes on the sixth and fifth strings and I ‘pedal’ around Bb notes on the third, fourth, and fifth strings.

2:15 As explained by Dave in the video, his riff here is also derived from (1 + root 5 )/ 2.

Sqrt (5) is embedded in the number of chugs again and the drums are half time. The “1” is a sustained and ringing Bb note.

Lyrics

Irrational!

Real but uncountable

Non-transcendental!

At the root of the problem

Patterns will!

Emerge from the equation

Golden Angle!

Sprials out of control

 

Chorus: The proportion is divine, you’ll find your way

To Phi (to Phi) (to Phi)

The ratio defined, you can’t deny

It’s Phi

 

The five-fold way

Forbidden symmetry

Crossing points define

Demonic  geometry

[Verse 1 is fairly self-explanatory.Verse 2  above is a little more obscure. It refers to the pentagram which, of course, is a key piece of metal ‘iconography’. The verse refers to five-fold symmetry which is directly linked to phi.].

Phi = root(1 + Phi = root(1 +Phi = root(1 +Phi = root(1 +…

[This stems from the equation φ = sqrt (1 + φ) which, of course, is recursive – hence the looping lyric). 

1.618033988749894

8482045868343656

3811772030917980


The Tau of Phi

To accompany Numberphile’s Tau of Phi video…

The music is here:

For some unfathomable reason, not everyone is a fan of heavy metal so I thought it might be helpful to compose a piece of ‘mathemusic’ which didn’t involve growling, screaming, and/or distorted, detuned guitars. If nothing else, I thought it might win Brady back a few  of those subscribers who unsubscribed from Numberphile in protest when our Golden Ratio Song was uploaded.

There are, of course, a number of great pieces of music out there whose composers have used fundamental mathematical constants as their basis (long before we decided to ‘metallize’ phi in the way we did). ViHart’s “A Song About A Circle Constant” and Michael Blake’s “What tau sounds like” are great examples and highly recommended. And both Tool (with ‘Lateralus’) and After The Burial (with “Pi”) have written songs directly inspired by constants in Nature. (More on Tool below).

But what do we get if we mix melodies and riffs based around a number of different constants? This was one of the motivations for the “Tau of Phi(bonacci)” piece. I was intrigued as to how a piece inspired by the digits of both tau and phi would sound.

Here’s how the piece of music works. (I used Audacity for all of the recording, effects, and mixing).

0:00 – 0:17. Opens with a gently looping piano melody derived from the first eight digits of tau mapped onto a Bb harmonic minor scale. (The same scale as we used for the math metal song). The sound in the background is a combination of strings and a crescendo involving Bb octaves which I then time-reversed. The strings throughout the piece are based on the digits of tau.

0:18 – 0:43. The tau riff continues to play. The chords underlying this are an interpretation on piano of the opening of the math metal Golden Ratio song. I take some ‘liberties’ here, however, and first play the sequence: “1…6…1” three times in a row, (starting at 0:18, 0:27, and at 0:36). That is, I repeat the first three digits of phi three times. This adds to the overall ‘atmosphere’ of the piece. (What’s important, I feel, is to use the constants to inspire the composition, rather than to slavishly reproduce the sequence of digits. Music and maths (and physics!) are all about creativity.)

0:45 – 0:51. Chords represent the “8” and “0” of phi.

0:52 – 1:00. …and then the “3..3..9..8” of phi.

1:02 seconds (and ~ 0.8 of a second!) – “Reprise” of opening tau riff on guitar and piano..

1:09 Tool’s “Lateralus” riff (downtuned to Bb and played on electric piano, rather than guitar). There were very many comments about “Lateralus”, and its relationship to the Fibonacci series, under the video for our golden ratio song. I felt it only right to ‘allude’ to Lateralus here. Timing of riff not coincidental (for Tool aficionados…).

1:20 ViHart, in her wonderfully crystal-clear vocal tones, sings 6..2..8..3..1..8..5..3. [Lots of delay and reverb courtesy of Audacity’s standard effects base].

I sampled the numbers from Vi’s “Oh No,  Pi Politics Again” video.

…except for the “6”. Unfortunately, she didn’t sing the digit “6” in that video so I add to resort to sampling her rendition of “6” from her tau song. But in her tau song, she’s singing along with a guitar. This meant quite a bit of manipulation of the frequencies of the sample to attempt to isolate the vocal.

[Warning – ‘tech-y’ musical bit:

ViHart sings the notes in her songs/melodies in the key of C major. But the music in the “Tau of Phi(bonacci)” is based around Bb minor. My first thought was to transpose ViHart’s vocals down two tones (i.e. from C to Bb major). But she ended up sounding not too unlike Barry White.

Not good.

So I instead transposed her vocals up a semitone to C#. C# major is the tonic major key of Bb minor so shifting Vi’s vocals up a semitone (a) doesn’t modify her overall vocal tone too much, and (b) works harmonically (in principle!).]

1:28 – 1:37. Piece fades out with tau riff gently looping on guitar.


Coda

A few years later I collaborated with another exceptionally talented musician (and physics teacher), Alan Stewart, on this piece of maths-influenced instrumental prog rock. (I learnt so very much from Alan about how melody and harmony work.)

Alan’s original version without my everything-one-louder-than-everything-else guitar on top (and with a full explanation of the links to the maths) is here:

 

The Aussie Pink Floyd Podcast #4

(…or should that be The Aussie Pinkcast?)

Last Tuesday I visited my friend Dave Domminney Fowler, guitarist with the Australian Pink Floyd, singer, keyboardist, drummer, songwriter, sound engineer, computer programmer, digital audio enthusiast, MIDI expert, self-confessed geek, and all-round obscenely talented bloke, at his home-cum-recording-studio in Sidcup, just outside London, to record a couple of podcasts.

Dave and I had a blast…

Not only is Dave an exceptional musician, but as I’ve mentioned before, he could very easily steal the mantle of “nicest guy in rock” from a certain Dave Grohl. He and I spent six or so hours playing guitar and nattering at length over copious amounts of tea. (It should be said that Dave has one or two guitars at his disposal…

IMG_4244

…and that’s certainly not all of ’em.)

The first of those podcasts, #4 in the Australian Pink Floyd series, was uploaded yesterday. Here’s the YouTube version, but it’s also available via a stream at the Aussie Pink Floyd site and via iTunes. Be warned, it gets a little bit “physics-y” in the first half — Dave and I are both massive Fourier analysis fans so we got perhaps (possibly, maybe) a little too carried away by the technical detail. It all settles down in the second half…

The second podcast was for Dave’s upcoming new (and yet unrevealed…) project. This featured discussions about social media (and social media shaming), tribalism, the Peterson-Harris ‘debate’ that Dave attended the night before, thunderf00t, sexism, and the greatest ever guitarists. (Some of Dave’s choices really surprised me. A man of eclectic tastes…) And that was just for starters. If and when the podcast appears online, I’ll certainly blog about it!

Thank you, Dave, for such a great day in Sidcup. (And there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write…)