Photonic Rock

This is an invited post by Johnny Russell, who contacted me some time ago about an intriguing “photonic” guitar he’s been developing, as demonstrated in the video below. (Subscribe to Johnny’s channel if you want to find out more.) I’m always intrigued by new approaches to music technology so I’ve been keeping an eye on what Johnny’s been doing.

Over to you, Johnny…


Just imagine you had a choice, between hail or snow; for one hour everyday for the rest of your life, regardless of the actual climate, it would hail or it would snow. Which would you choose? Easy decision, right?

Hail is interesting, exciting and even scary when it does come, but snow… snow is beautiful and magical, each snowflake a unique and fragile mathematical pattern that suggests some deeper and profound meaning of the universe in which we exist.

But actually I’m going to talk about music, so why the snow or hail metaphor?

Well it seems in the last ten or so years popular music has become exactly the choice we wouldn’t make – constant hail, every single day. You see, just as water can take on the spatial structure of hail and snow, sound can take on the temporal structure of electronic dance music or Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Just as the spatial structures of hail and snow have different formation processes, so too does the temporal structure of music, but with music the distinction is quite easily defined: was the temporal structure generated by a computer or created by a human.

And what is one thing missing from computer generated music? Groove.

Music is fundamentally one of the most important aspects of culture. And from the bird’s song to the very heartbeats that give our bodies their constant rhythm, all of it follows mathematical patterns that give rise to groove. These fractal patterns are called long-range correlations, the mathematical name that describes the respective spatial and temporal structures of both snowflakes and groove music.​ These groovy patterns have existed all throughout the history of evolution, as they are an intrinsic part of the universe in which we live. But, for the first time in human history, as the music industry aims for “perfection” and producers have taken the role of musicians, these patterns have largely been removed. The vast majority of music on the radio mathematically contains little groove, resulting in melodies that don’t remain with us as there is little human fluctuation, no groove that we can inherently and fundamentally relate to; hail.

A big part of this trend is that with music tech, there remains one last problem; the guitar, the number one rock star instrument cannot be made to produce MIDI in real time to create these fractal patterns. This problem has been around for decades, but for each attempted solution, something has to be sacrificed from a true guitar style to achieve this. The problem here is simply because string dynamics are complicated, there are many frequencies bouncing around at any instant. To know the frequencies you then have a problem which is analogous to the quantum mechanical Heisenberg uncertainty principle: the more accurately you know position, the less accurately you know momentum.

With string dynamics the trade-off is that to know the fundamental frequency node of the note on the vibrating string, you need time; the more time you have, the more precisely the frequency can be calculated. This is done by a mathematical process called a Fourier Transform. This is what current systems work with, which means that the MIDI note can’t be calculated and played without some latency. The other approach is to redesign the guitar completely, but these systems lose the subtlety and speed of the string dynamics themselves. The one consistent thing across all these systems is that they are completely electronic.

The Russell Photonic Guitar is the first REAL guitar to produce chords, note slides, hammer-ons and pull-offs with MIDI sound in line with the natural or electric sound coming out of the guitar, simultaneously, in the moment. Finally, a next generation instrument that can sync with the flow of human emotion. With this, not only will electronic and rock music have a new tool in which to explore the vast MIDI landscape, but also classical music will have piano that can also do all the unique guitar string tricks, and here also new musical landscapes will be opened up for musicians to explore, and everyone to enjoy.​

Lastly, and possibly most importantly; contrary to music dividing people due to the attachment of egos or identity to so many separate splintered genres, music still has an overwhelming power to bring different people together. It all has to do with groove. A remarkable scientific discovery on the power of groove is outlined in this paper, in which the authors studied beat fluctuations between two musicians, and, to quote, “…the next beat played by an individual is dependent on the entire history (up to several minutes) of their partner’s interbeat intervals.” Which means that two people can be locked into the same groovy fractal pattern.

Why is that so significant? Well, do you know how if you look at the stars, due to the finite speed of light, you are looking into the past? The same thing happens on a much smaller scale if you are interacting with a fellow human being; you’re interacting with a moment that has already gone. We are all islands of isolation separated by the finite speed of light, the speed of causality. So how can we bridge our islands of isolation? If we essentially all get on the same groove (sometimes referred to colloquially as a “groove train”) by way of fractal patterns, we are temporally locked, and isn’t that truly experiencing the same moment together? If that is the case, then that is truly Zen.

This is the power of groove, and why the Russell Photonic Guitar will be so significant for all of music.

 

Standards at Cambridge just ain’t what they used to be…

I’ve been swamped with the day job of late so my rate of blogging has accordingly dropped substantially. But I woke up this morning and blearily-eyed checked my Outlook inbox, to find, nestling between the usual spam conference invitations from predatory publishers [1], an e-mail about this Guardian article: Cambridge University rescinds Jordan Peterson invitation. (Thanks, Lori. Peterson to wake up to at 6:00 am. You’re too kind.) And I just can’t let this go without a quick post before I get back to the e-mail backlog.

Just what the hell was Cambridge thinking?

Peterson’s pathetically transparent, overwrought, and highly lucrative “anti-PC” crusades are of course entirely at odds with the ethos of Cambridge, and the university’s staff and students quickly and forcefully pointed this out. [2]

But what I can’t get my head around is how and why the invitation to Peterson was made in the first place. One would hope that Cambridge of all places would very carefully consider and vet the scholarship of any visiting fellow. Fellowships are generally exceptionally difficult to secure. Did no-one involved with inviting Peterson take the time to read and assess his writings and witterings?

This, for example…

(from his, um, “seminal” Maps Of Meaning.)

Cambridge took that seriously? Over the years, I’ve received green ink letters and e-mails that rank at the top of the Baez scale that make much more sense.

Or what about Peterson’s lobster nonsense, as, for example, forensically dissected by Bailey Steinworth, a third year PhD student researcher, in her masterful take-down last year? Here’s Steinworth’s closing argument. (I urge you to read the entire piece.)

“No biologist would argue with Peterson that dominance hierarchies have probably existed for a long time, but it’s also true that plenty of animals live together without the need to assert dominance over one another. It seems as if his discussion of lobsters illustrates far more about his own worldview than it does about human behavior, but he’s the psychologist, not me. “

Peterson’s lobster fixation is a fantastic example of what Feynman described as Cargo Cult science — all of the hallmarks of science but lacking the essential objectivity and self-critical reasoning.  But yet this level of “scholarship” is good enough to warrant a visiting fellowship at one of Britain’s most august seats of learning?

And the less said about Peterson’s wilfully uninformed playing to the gallery when it comes to climate change, the better.

It takes a minimal amount of background reading about Peterson to discern the “Emperor’s New Clothes” character of his appeal. It’s rather depressing that academics of the calibre of those who lecture in the hallowed halls of Cambridge couldn’t manage this modicum of research. As a starting point, I thoroughly recommend Nathan J. Robinson’s profile of Peterson: “The Intellectual We Deserve“. Or for a rather more pithy insight into Peterson’s style-over-substance shtick, Private Eye nailed it in this parody.

It’s very worrying indeed that the standard of scholarship required of visiting academics at what is arguably Britain’s most prestigious university [3] has slipped this low [4]. 


[1] These somehow always seem to make it through Nottingham’s otherwise rather gung-ho spam filter…

[2] Peterson will be rubbing his hands with glee at the news that his invitation has been rescinded. What better example of the “PC orthodoxy”/cultural Marxists/leftist snowflakes/ (…insert tiresome cliche of choice...)  clamping down on his free speech could there be? He’ll dine out on this for quite some time.

[3] Settle down, Oxford.

[4] However, Cambridge — or, at least, its associated publisher, Cambridge University Press — has form when it comes to pseudoscientific woo.

How Science Got Women Wrong

They say you should never meet those who’ve inspired you because it’s impossible to live up to the weight of expectations. Well, sometimes they’re just flat-out wrong. Angela Saini, whose Inferior is a masterclass in compelling science writing (for all of the reasons Jess Wade discusses in her review for Physics World), visited Nottingham yesterday evening, rounding off a week of events for International Women’s Day, to give what may well have been her very last talk on the subject of that exceptionally influential book: how science got women wrong. And she was every bit as impressive in person as her writing would suggest.

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Angela carefully, scientifically, and engagingly dismissed the various stereotypes and zombie myths that continue to be trotted out, unthinkingly, by those who claim that women are just not “wired” for science. She was too polite to name and shame the academic responsible for the nonsense below — from a book published as recently as 2010 [1]–  which drew incredulous chuckles and laughter from the audience…

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I’m not as polite as Angela, however. That quote is from Simon Baron-Cohen, whom I’ve mentioned before once or twice at this blog in the context of over-aggrieved gentlemen and their wilfully uninformed assertions on the natural order of things. Angela highlighted how even the best scientists (Darwin included) can unblinkingly accept the cultural and societal mores and prejudices of their time.

My colleague and friend Mark Fromhold neatly summed up Angela’s talk:

..and I agree entirely with @UoNBioscicareer’s take on the take-home message:

Thank you, Angela, for visiting Nottingham to explain not only how science got women wrong but what we need to do to put things right. Those biases are deeply engrained but, to echo the message we closed on last night, recognising them is the first step towards addressing them.

Angela’s new book Superior: The Return of Race Science is out at the end of May. It is set to be just as influential as Inferior. You can pre-order it now…

[1] That’s not a typo. 2010. Not 1910.

 

 

 

 

 

Maths In Action

Just back from London where I had a fun — and ever-so-slightly daunting — time talking about the beauty of maths in music and physics for an audience of 700 GCSE students at the “Maths In Action” conference. The venue was stunning…

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Just about visible at the front of the cavernous auditorium is the speaker before me, Hugh Hunt (Engineering, Cambridge), doing a remarkable job of entertaining and engaging the audience with his demonstration-packed talk on angular momentum, gyroscopic precession, and all things spin-y. Hugh’s talk was an impossible act to follow — he set the bar exceptionally high indeed. I did my usual spin on the quantum-metal interface but tilted it towards a discussion of the role of mathematics in physics. (I had to come clean right at the start and confess to the students that I am most definitely not a mathematician.)

The students were great throughout — they certainly were not shy to shout out answers to the questions I asked (and to sing musical notes back to me, occasionally even in tune). An extra big thank you to Korbyn — and my sincere apologies if I’ve got the spelling wrong — for coming up on stage to play the opening riff to Black Sabbath and help me introduce the concept of the diabolical flattened fifth.

And, of course, I have to say a huge thank you to David Matthews, coordinator of the event (and Maths Programme Manager for The Training Partnership, who run a very broad series of GCSE events of this type)  for both the invitation to speak and for such an impressively organised day. As someone who too often struggles to manage just two teenagers*, attempting to coordinate 700 would bring me out in a cold sweat…

* I’m joking, Niamh and Saoirse. You’re great.

The stem cell trachea scandal

Over the last couple of years I have followed Leonid Schneider‘s dedicated and forensic reporting of the Macchiarini trachea implant scandal (which has taken its toll on Leonid through legal threats and court costs) but had not realised that my colleague and collaborator, Raphael Levy (University of Liverpool) was also embroiled in this tragic case. That was until the following blog post appeared in my e-mail inbox a couple of days ago…

Raphael’s commitment to uncovering scientific misconduct, in this case alongside his colleague Prof Patricia Murray in the Institute of Translational Medicine at Liverpool, continues to inspire. I hope that Shauna Davidson‘s family get the answers they deserve very soon. It is very disappointing, to put it mildly, that, as Raphael describes below, the Medical Research Council (MRC) has been less than entirely open with its responses.

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Yesterday night, BBC Newsnight broadcasted an investigation by journalist Deborah Cohen featuring interviews with my colleague Prof Patricia Murray as well as extremely moving testimony by the mum of Shauna Davidson. Shauna’s mum had been misled on the nature of the intervention on her daughter and even on the cause of her death.

Patricia is a stem cell expert and we’ve hada longterm (and ongoing) collaboration on using imaging to track stem cells for evaluation of their safety and efficacy. When, a few years ago, she started to get interested in the Macchiarini scandal and realised that similar experiments on patients had been done in the UK (and continued to be done), she contacted me knowing my interest in ethical issues and scientific misconduct. I am proud to have supported her sterling work in uncovering this scandal – I am also pleased that legal threats have…

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Sick — the prescription you need

Sick_1The blog has taken a back seat over the last month due to the fun and frolics of the day job so apologies to regular readers (both of you) for the lack of rambles and rants of late. I just had to break radio silence this morning, however, to strongly and enthusiastically recommend that you go see Shey Hargreave‘s affecting, compelling, and downright wonderful Sick “a storytelling show… documenting one receptionist’s journey through four years of austerity”.

I went to see Sick at the Nottingham Arts Theatre last night and it was one of the most moving and entertaining shows I’ve seen. Ever. Shey’s performance — a one hour monologue that seemed to fly by in five minutes because I was so caught up in the story — is entirely believable because it draws from her experience of, as Shey herself puts it, the “organised chaos of an emergency medical unit” when she worked as a clerk in the NHS from 2013 to 2017.

Nottingham’s LeftLion’s review of the show captures what makes it so very special:

Littered with well timed jokes and frequently laugh out loud funny, whilst telling tragically sad stories, SICK is a bizarrely charming and entertaining show. A bittersweet study of what makes us human, and a funny and approachable call to political arms told in Hargreaves’ appealing, warm and honest style.

I should come clean at this point and admit that I’ve known Shey for a number of years. We’ve worked together, along with Charli Vince and Brigitte Nerlich, on a graphic novel, Open Day (which we’re hoping will be published in the not-too-distant future. More about that in due course. Charli and Brigitte have both previously blogged about Open Dayhere and here.)

IMG_6493I knew from her Open Day script that Shey is a talented and engaging writer but I was delighted to find out last night that she is also an exceptional actor. The audience was rapt throughout — alternately chocking back tears and laughing out loud. That ability to connect so well comes from the compelling honesty of Sick; as Shey puts it in a wonderfully named podcast about the show, “It’s fucking hard sometimes” to perform a piece that is based on, at times, harrowing real-life experiences. What was remarkable about last night was Shey’s ability to not only balance that sadness with laughter but to blend perceptive political analysis (NHS funding, Brexit, nationalism…) seamlessly into the narrative.

There are still a number of dates left on the Sick tour (including another date in Nottingham Arts Theatre tonight.) You owe it to yourself to go. I guarantee you’ll have, in Shey’s words, “a Right Good Time.”