The Radioactive Orchestra: Creating Music From Isotopic Frequences

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Everything around us is flowing with radioactive energy.

That’s why a nuclear safety team in Sweden teamed with composer Axel Boman and musician Kristofer Hagbard to create the Radioactive Orchestra, an ambitious project based on the actual movements of radioactive isotopes — — variants of an element with slightly different atomic weights.

“Right now we know of 3,175 different isotopes,” Georg Herlitz, who heads the project, told, he said, “each with its owns decay pattern. We took the energy loss from each level and translated it into hertz, something like one kiloelectron voltage for two frequencies.”

The result is phenomenal.

The orchestra consists of a Web interface where you can create your own melodies that use isotopic frequencies — and visualize how radioactive energy moves.

Herlitz runs an ad agency called Kollektivet Livet Produktion in Sweden. He originally developed a video series on radiation for a nuclear safety team. At that time, Herlitz attended a lecture at the KTH (Royal Institute of Technology) and learned how isotopes decay and form a pattern of energy.

Being a visual artist, Herlitz immediately thought about music. He’s not alone in visulalizing science: Bjork recently made an app for the iPhone that helps you visual astronomy with music. And artists like Daft Punk incorporate repetitive beeps that sound like atomic signatures.

Yet no music prior to the Radioactive Orchestra has used real isotopic frequencies. Eventually, visual mediums could be used for other hard-to-explain sciences, Herlitz said.

Radiohead meets radiation
Boman and Hagbard are about to release a new album using their own melodies based on the work at Kollektivet Livet Produktion. (The album, called Radioactive Orchestra, comes out August 15 on the Studio Barnhus label on iTunes and the usual digital music services.)

The music has some of the unpredictable melodies of a typical Radiohead album — except that it is based on real science.

To be fair, Herlitz pointed out that the album fudges the isotopes a bit. To make music that is enjoyable and has a recognizable beat, Boman used the backbone of the isotopes and created music samples.

“I didn’t want to stray too far away from the original recordings we did, but as you can hear drums and pads were added to contextualize the sound,” Boman told reporters.

Hagbard explained that he listened to hundreds of isotopes to find those that were artistically pleasing. In some cases, as with the Cobalt-60 isotope, he used an actual gamma spectra signature and converted it into an audio signature, and then incorporated that into the music.

“As far as we know this is the first time in history where radiation is translated to something quite tangible. It’s a way of showing that radiation does not have to be harmful,” added Liselotte Herlitz, who heads the nuclear safety team in Sweden called Kärnkraftssäkerhet och Utbildning or KSU.

According to Herlitz, the project is just the beginning. He sees a day when many of the hard sciences — which seek to understand the early universe, climate change, astronomical movements and more — are visualized through the use of music, artistic photography, and other mediums.

Radiation, it seems, is just the start.

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