IU researcher Walker Smith has developed a new technique to conceptualize the elements of the periodic table as sounds. He is currently working on creating an interactive tool to hear each element.
Smith, who majored in both chemistry and music composition, said he found it hard to combine his passions for each subject until learning about spectroscopy.
He said spectroscopy involves hitting an atom with radio waves, causing electrons to jump to higher energy states. When the electrons jump back down to their natural state, they release energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation. The electromagnetic radiation, which is usually seen as light, shows up visually as colored bands across the spectrum of visible light, Smith said.
Because light exhibits characteristics of a wave, the waveforms of these light bands can be converted into audible sound waves, Smith said. Bands closer to the red end of the spectrum create lower-pitched sounds, and bands closer to blue and purple end create higher sounds.
He has performed several concerts involving the sound of elements for university students, professors and for children at the WonderLab science museum. Smith said he is highly interested in using the sonification of elements as a tool to spread excitement about science among young people.
“Students at that point are forming their understanding of science and other disciplines,” Smith said. “Encouraging this multimodal and interdisciplinary learning at a young age can be really beneficial.”
Laura Brown, IU chemistry professor, and mentor to Smith, said she sees potential in the project to inspire future scientists.
“If you can get to students at an early age where they grow up being excited about science, then I think they won’t limit themselves when they get to college,” Brown said.
Brown also said she hopes Smith’s efforts will result in more accessibility to visually impaired people in chemistry.
“Chemistry is a very visual science,” Brown said. “What Walker’s doing is audiolizing data, which could be a route to making chemistry more accessible to students who can’t see.”
Smith said he hopes that sonifying the elements will help make learning about the periodic table more accessible to visually impaired people. However, he emphasized that this is still a work in progress.
Chi Wang, assistant professor of music at IU and another mentor to Smith, said creatively combining disciplines are both useful as an educational tool and a form of expression.
“It’s a new way to create musical expression and a new form of art,” Wang said. “No matter what the result will be, it will help push boundaries in both areas.”
CLARIFICATION: Walker Smith’s title was updated to reflect his current position.