104: what would this room sound like to an alien with radio telescopes for ears?

We are bathed in electromagnetism...some from the terrestrial atmosphere, some from galactic radiation but mostly from the human electric grid.  What would this very room I'm sitting in right now 'sound' like to an alien with radio telescopes for ears?   Let's have a listen when I turn on the 'Very Low Frequency' receiver.

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Where is everyone (or, "why haven't we seen any ET if the universe is 'teeming' with life)

Earlier, I wrote that the universe is teeming with life.  But if that's correct, then why haven't we seen any aliens on Earth?  Why aren't we routinely in contact with Extra-terrestrial life forms?  Doesn't it seem like my Teeming Universe runs right into Fermi's paradox?

JodrellEnrico Fermi is otherwise known for his work developing the first atomic bomb.  His paradox is a formulation of criteria concerning the age, size, likelihood of civilization developing and surviving into a sustainable space-faring colony.  Fermi says that by now, all things known, there has been time for aliens to travel far enough to reach earth.  The fact that they haven't suggests that they don't exist.

The Drake Equation formalizes Fermi's Paradox, and all approaches to 'solve' it challenge one or more of the assumptions included in the Drake Equation.  The discovery of planets orbiting distant suns suddenly allowed for the possiblity of many more life-sustaining planets.   If humanity succeeds in developing beyond mutually assured destruction, then the expected lifespan of a civilisation increases and the opportunity for galactic exploration increases. 

A paradox is a statement that contradicts itself - think of Zeno's Paradox, where you are rendered incapable of crossing a room because each step is half the remaining distance to the opposite wall.  There's nothing contradictory in Fermi's statement.  I'm not sure if it even rises to the level of a conundrum.   I'd rename it Fermi's Observation. 

Observations are  filtered through our own expectations of viable technology.  There's a variable in the equation for the number of civilisations that emit detectable signals in to space.  We have assumed that those signals will be in the radio frequency.  It's not a bad assumption.  We have been very effective in viewing the universe with radio telescopes, and undoubtedly radio waves are a fundamental characteristic of the universe.  Perhaps Fermi assumed that 'detectable signals' were physical artifacts visible on the earth. 

In the 17th century, the idea was to dig  huge trenches shaped like the pythagorean solids in the Bavarian forest.  Filled with pitch and ignited, these were intended as meaningful signals to geometrically inclined Martians.  Our radio search will look this way, too, one day.

I'm poking around at the edge of McLuhan  to figure out what the next medium is, the medium that has the same relationship to Electronic and Electronic has to Print.  When the terrestrial flips from hot to cold.   But even that will still be "not the alien".  Thats the point.  The alien is alien.

Check out this bit from the Squonk Opera show Astrorama.  It's guaranteed to entertain, and also hits on an important point.  The alien contact experience is so radically different from anything we've ever experienced before that we can't expect to define and probably can't recognize even if we're in the middle of it. 

That's the point of space open up the senses of the participants so that they are more likely to see whats really always here, but is too bizarre for words.



The likelihood of ET (or, "Why I think the universe is teeming with life")

In 250 words or less.

One of my favorite Terrence McKenna raps talks through the evolving complexity of the universe.  here's a sample (longer McKenna  transcript here):

 Out of atomic systems come chemical systems.  Out of chemical systems comes the covalent hydrogen bond,  the carbon bond, complex chemistry that is pre-biotic or organic.  Out of that chemistry comes the macro-physical systems that we call membranes, gels, charge transfer complexes...this sort of thing.  These systems are the chemical pre-conditions for life.  Simple life, the life of the prokaryotes, the life naked un-nucleated DNA that characterized primitive life on the planet.

 Out of that life come eukaryotes, nucleated cells and then complex colonies of cells,  and then cell specialization - leading to higher animals, leading to social animals, leading to complex social systems,

I get from this a sense of precipitation.  Energy, matter, form, biology, culture all precipitate from this cooling entity we call the universe.  I think this has deep implications for the evolution of biology and the evolution of culture across the universe.

Think of this.  An ocean, teeming with bits.  We are some of those bits.   One day (one cosmic aeon, choose your term), we wake up in a rock pool.  The ocean level has gradually settled and we are now in a discrete region.  

We float in the water, perhaps climb on the walls a bit but in a few more days, some of us start to wonder how we got here.  What event caused us to be created in this pool.  We measure the parameters of this pool, it is a wonderful pool just fit for our habitation.  Some of our bravest swim all the way to the bottom of the pool and dig around.  They find strange, ancient material and we develop a theory that our biology grew from the bottom of the pool upwards. 

Some of our craziest begin to wonder if there are other pools.  If there are other pools, are there also other beings like us? Are the unique, possibly random events that led to our existence availble in those other pools?  Did beings like us also emerge from the bottom of their pools?  Would they look like us? 

 Others decide that is there are other pools, there's probably lots of cool stuff in them, so we better get there first.  They develop the technology to see outside our pool and gradually build craft that can hop over the wall and send back messages.  We find other pools.

So you can see where this is going.  The emergence of life on Earth wasn't the result of a unique event, building up from a set of specific environmental criteria leading to the current wave of genetic activity. 

No, it's the reverse.  We are living in a discrete pool of material, separated from other similar pools  only by time, space and gravity.  Because biology exists on earth, we can know that it exists elsewhere, because we are no more than a part of the gradually cooling muck of the cosmic orogony. 

Certainly, I invoke some poetic license in this. 

There's an interesting span where maybe occasional bits othe ocean splash over into our rock pool, and sometimes one or two of us are swept out and back in again.  But that's a different post, don't want to get on an unintended tangent.

Another unintended tangent would be the few who never forgot that once there was a space where 'space' did not exist. 

counterpoint for atmosphere and didgeridoo

The earth's atmosphere is alive with electromagnetic activity at the low end of the radio spectrum,  Most comes from lightening storms across the globe, although some of the most beautiful forms are generated by the interaction of solar winds with the magnetosphere.

I say "beautiful" forms, because with a Very Low Frequency (VLF) receiver, you can pick up this electromagnetic activity and reproduce an equivalent sound.  Check out the NASA page for streaming 'sferics'  .  The available sounds are like bird song, animal calls or deep breathing.   With some pretty good electronics skills, I could make a receiver myself.  With passable skills, I could probably put together one of the available kits.  Since I have neither, I'm deeply grateful to Steve McGreevey and his website Auroral Chorus.  In addition to providing a great introduction to the subject, the site also includes many examples from his own field recordings.  And most important, he sells completed and tested VLF receivers.  One of which I have on order.

I'm going to start working out a piece that I first started thinking about over 5 years ago.  Called Voices of the Noosphere, it is a piece for radio telescope and didgeridoo.  The idea was that the telescope would be receiving electromagnetic signals from a pulsar.  That pulsar signal would be represented in sound.  I had a patch written in the cSound software language that would apply the envelope of my didgeridoo playing to the 'sound' of the pulsar.  I'd throw in some optional granular synthesis processing for aesthetic effect, and then re-broadcast the signal out to the stars.

If I remember right, the very first impulse for this came as part of a discussion of SETI message construction with Doug Vakoch.  We'd met at a SETI workshop, and started to write down a proposed structure for an outbound message, one that attempted to encode notions of 'creativity'.  We did this by presenting material that was shaped by the fibonacci series.  Rhythmic bursts of radio at specific frequencies, harmonic relationships across the radio spectrum:  all governed by the Fibonacci series.

The idea was that a receiving culture would identify the underlying series, and then would recognize that other parts of the message manipulated this underlying pattern.  A natural source - like a pulsar - could create a repeating pattern, but it is highly unlikely that a natural source would move through the first 5 numbers of a Fibonacci sequence, and then retrograde that pattern.

I thought that a larger piece could be done using an identifiable radio source - like a pulsar.  The electronically manipulated sound along with my didgeridoo would provide a couple layers of counterpoint.  A receiving culture could identify the pulsar, and then ask themselves what on earth that other material represented.  I like the didgeridoo for this because of all instruments, it seems to create music with a period about as long as a human breath, with overtones that seem to resonate with the human heartbeat. 

Another element of the piece was that this same material would be meaningful for a human audience, listening to the sonic representation of it all.  The sound becomes an interstitial space, a place where the biological necessity of sense perception overlaps with a representation of the larger electromagnetic form of the universe.  This is a privileged location, one that is liturgical, poetic, alchemical.

I've gotten a lot of mileage out of this piece, for something that has never been realised.  With the VLF receiver, I'm going to start working out the details, and creating the alchemical conjunction.  I may not (yet) be working with pulsars, but I will be interacting with the electromagnetic spectrum in a meaningful manner.


Backside of the Rosetta Stone


Yes, the Rosetta stone is one of those things, isn't it?  Clearly important:  expect to hear Beethoven's 9th playing whenever it comes on stage, with a backdrop of the Eiffel Tower and a PInt of Guiness in hand.  

The Rosetta Stone decoded a culture  of wisdom, aesthetics, poetry, politics.  I saw it recently on a vacation trip that included a morning at the British museum.  I was there to take some photos of the Shabako stone, and had never really looked at the Rosetta Stone before.  But there it is, encased in glass, center of  the foyer.  You can walk around the stone, which means you can see the dark side of Rosetta, the unpublished side.  

This has a transfixing beauty to it,  like staring at the wall and seeing patterns in the plaster, or watching static on the TV.  Does 'proper' static even exist in hi-def digital?   (Also reminds me of The Scratch Pieces. ) But hieroglyphs are easy:  decode the backside of the Rosetta Stone, and you decode extra terrestrial communication.



There is no Random here.

There is no such thing as chance.  Yesterday, I wrote about white noise, sound generated by computer synthesis.  The nature of computation makes it inevitable that predictable patterns will emerge. 

If I throw  the I Ching, is it non-determinist?  Is it a Chance operation?  

Having started out by saying that there is no such thing as chance, I've probably pre-determined the response.   The throwing of the I Ching is precisely the surface that the bones land on, by the shape and density of the different staves, by the angle of my hand when I throw them, the subtle difference in force applied from each finger and by 86,000 conditions of karma.  There is no stage along a throwing of the I Ching that is not determined by the previous.  No doubt it is hard to recreate, and harder to anticipate the result.  

I end up suggesting that a Chance event is one that could only be recreated by the system that created it in the first place.  Something like the I Ching depends on the variables of a given moment .  All moments, all phenomena are dependent on the criteria that created them.  

Randomness is an intuitive algorithm, a process that is best understood in the fluid sense of Mind.  Mind resides between the physical senses.   Each Chance operation is the result of a limited definition of the system.  Define the limits differently, and the operation is part of a known sequence.  Mind is  the unlimited system.

It's unclear to me how John Cage actually applied the I Ching to his musical process. It does seem that he used the I Ching to generate sequences of numbers,  perhaps applied to pitch, duration.  But did the I Ching also provide guidance on broader issues?  Could the wisdom texts associated with each hexagram have provided answers to  structural questions?

Merce Cunningham was a choreographer who collaborated with Cage and also allowed Indeterminate actions to create the piece.  They would work separately, with the music and dance coming together for the performance. 

It is in our nature to see patterns when events occur simultaneously.  The motion  of a tractor mower in a park across the river seems to move to  the same beat as the pulsing engine of a passing barge.  Maybe they do.  Maybe they don't.  Maybe then again they really do, and it is only the tenuous membrane  of linear chronology that keeps things  in order.

Static is a form of noise that lends itself to pattern seeking.   Recall the scene in the movie Contact where Jodie Foster  listens to the output of the telescope  array through headsets.  I've started a series of pieces, 9 in all, based on a  sample of computer generated white noise.  I use visual filters to enhance patterns, each of the nine revealing a different emphasis.   The effect is long, sustained, biological.  

This is an engagement with complexity and liminality rather than randomness. 

R Murry Schafer is a composer who has written on the idea of the Soundscape.  In his book The Tuning of the World, (1977), he identifies the physical connection of the human body, and the natural sounds of the environment, using a quote from Thomas Mann The Magic Mountain:

“ Day after day one walks along the strand, listening to the indolent splashing of the wavelets, gauging the gradual crescendo to the heavier treading and on to the organized warfare of the breakers.  The mind must be slowed to catch the million transformations of the water, on sand, on shale, against driftwood, against the seawall.  Each drop tinkles at a different pitch;  each wave sets a different filtering on an inexhaustible supply of white noise.  Some sounds are discrete, others continuous.  In the sea, the two fuse in primordial unity.  The rhythms of the sea are many;  infrabiological - for the water changes pitch and timbre faster than the ear’s resolving power to catch it’s changes;  biological - the waves rhyme with the patterns of heart and lung and the tides with night and day;  and suprabiolgical - the eternal inextinguishable presence of water”

It would be interesting to bring a choreographer in, perhaps show the spectrogram of each of my nine pieces.  Or perhaps simply give a score with the text  "9 pieces each 20 minutes derived from White Noise"  Or maybe just "9 x 20 minutes".


Transduction, unheard music and Dreams of a Debauched Dodo

A while ago, in 2000, I gave a paper at a conference on Art and Science of Extraterrestrial Message Composition.  The conference was co-sponsored by SETI and by Leonardo, and Doug Vakoch wrote up a nice article afterwards.

I was interested in the physiology of sound, how our shaping of sound represents our bodies.   

My brief was that if we performed analysis on a large enough sample, we could identify some generic gestures, probably based on units of basic metabolism, and use that as material to construct an outbound message to ET.  

The tool for this was the spectrogram, which I started to write about in an earlier blog on Fourier transform. The spectrogram takes 'sound' out of 'music', presents the material as an artifact outside of culture.  

“A Waveform in one medium holds meaning in second.  The Paris paper started to suggest the idea of sound as an architectural object.  We could take all these sonic objects ("pieces of music"), create a morphology of generic structures, then transduce those to the electromagnetic spectrum.

(Elsewhere, I've commented on limitations of radio astronomy as the format for ET communication.)

The key to transduction is a shared measurement of Frequency.  Everything that unfolds in time can be measured with a frequency.   If something happens 10,000 times per second (10,000 Hertz)  in air, it can happen 10,000 times in electromagnetism.  Or in water.  Or soil.  Or if it happens once every 1017 seconds

To reiterate: when I say 'music', here I am not referring to cultural styles.  I am referring to the conscious manipulation of pattern as represented by a waveform that can be applied to any medium.

SCAN0045This handwritten graph sketches out the idea.  At the center is a linear axis, exponential values representing frequency from Zero to Infinity.

1 cycle per second, (1Hz)  is the human heartbeat.

The chart breaks down into bands of activity, representing  different sources of data, different medium.  I've been talking about Electromagnetism and the Audible Spectrum, both shown here:  but I also wanted to include biological, seismic, galactic time scales.  As the chart is developed I expect to include other animal characteristics such as whale song and insect noise.   I show  diurnal activity (ocean tides), the solar calendar and then a jump up to the current age of the universe. I could also draw a block that represents the frequency of the martian orbit, the rotation of the Milky Way, the Age of Aquarius or the frequency of a human life.

The graph represents transduction as a jump between bands - for example from audible to electromagnetic, or seismic to sonic.  This is more than just manipulating pitch to represent data.  There is a 3 dimensional mathematical artifact that is moving between media.

If we take the frequencies of Visible light (let's say around  1015 ) and Transduce that to Audible, we are first changing the mechanism generating the energy so that now energy moves through.   But we also need to consider Transposition.  1015  if played on an instrument ( a hell of an instrument) is far beyond the range of human hearing. Although sonoluminescence is an intriguing possibility.  But for us to 'hear' the pattern created by light, the number needs to be divided down so that it is more like 103 .

The math is interesting, because the fundamental relationships between frequencies are ratios rather than exact measurements.  The energy required to double the frequency is always the same.  To move from 440Hz to 880Hz requires the same energy as moving from 44000hz to 88000Hz.  Higher frequencies have a lower energy distribution.

Back to Paris for a moment.   The output of Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) is a series of time-sequenced frequency arrays, which suggested to me that using some kind of algorithmic analysis (maybe humdrum?) I could look for shared sequences across a wide body of recorded samples.  Those sequences could occur in any of the measurable vectors - beginning with pitch, but also looking for patterns in the overtones, shared sequences of amplitude changes. 

(I've also thought that this could be a useful approach to whale song.  The analysis of whale song I've seen has assumed that change in pitch generates a bit of information - but if we were to apply that method to the Hildegaard sample I presented in Paris, we'd miss all the meaning.  I would propose an analysis of whale song that considers the periods of silence as a signifcator, or looks for patterns of changing amplitude at certain subsonic frequencies.)

The paper was really more a musing on the subject.  I also played a recording of a composition.  I was starting to think about composition in these generic terms.  Along with a didgeridoo, I used electronics to create other drones, pulses, nothing you would call a beat - repeated surges and upwellings.  We were fortunate to be hosted in the Malina family home:  Frank Malina was an engineer at NASA  and an artist.  Many of his pieces were painting overlapping lights with different levels that moved, rotated to create complex sequence of colour.  Roger Malina commented on how the aesthetic of the music merged well with his father's paintings.

The piece had been called Dream of a Debauched Dodo, I should dig up a cassette from the archive.  At the gentle insistence from Doug - who understood the audience better than I did -  I temporarily used the title Music for Didgeridoo and Electronics.



Fourier, Transduction and Alien Composers.


One of the principles of Sonicism is:

“A Waveform in one medium holds meaning in second”

A wave is the movement of energy through a medium.  We are most familiar with 'sound', which is the motion of energy as waves in air.  A wave can be analyzed mathematically through a process called Fourier analysis.  Those results can be visually represented in a spectrum.  A spectrum is an analytical artifact, a visual representation of the results of Fourier analysis.  It is also a tool that allows for intuitive reckoning with the structure of the wave. 

This is a spectral analysis taken from a fragment of whale song. 


I use Sonic Visualiser, because it is awesome and because it is free. I remember seeing pitch analysis of whale song as an undergrad in a music theory lecture. Later reading of Robert Cogan showed how spectral analysis could be used for musical thinking.

The Y-axis of a spectrum (whether music or any other wave) represents frequency - think of it as the keys on a piano, with 'up' being 'higher'.   The width of these buckets is an important consideration.  On a piano, each key represents a half step.  There are obviously an infinite degree of smaller steps in between each recognized pitch, and the same is true of the frequency buckets used for Fourier analysis.

[Now is not the time to get in to details about the well-tempered systems, plural, used on the piano over the past 4 centuries.  Suffice to say that the above statement referring to equal half steps is incorrect by ommission.  ]

So we define the granularity of the frequencies that will be represented in the analysis.  A standard default is 1026 across the audible spectrum, roughly considered 20 - 20,000 hz.  That math is beyond me, but it means that some equal distribution of frequency is assumed.

The X-axis represents time.  Just as we broke down the frequency range into buckets, so we break time into discrete windows.  Each window of time captures the frequencies present in each bucket at that instant.  From this information, our analytical tool paints a pretty picture.

Fourier analysis is based on the insight that a complex wave can be represented as the sum of many sine waves.  A complex form is revealed as a series of discrete waves, each represented at a particular frequency.  The width of the Y-axis frequency buckets in the spectrum  determines how precise we can be in isolating each discrete wave.  If those waves were added back together, the peaks and troughs would enhance or cancel each other, and the original complex waveform would be re-calculated.

Fourier analysis assumes that the wave is unchanging after the first period. Music obviously *does* change over time, as do most complex wave patterns. Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) performs Fourier analysis on each window of time, and then sequences those slices of time together. 

The results of Fourier analysis can be reversed to generate the original sound. They can also be manipulated before engineering the sound.  Visual forms can be constructed to create new waveforms.This is a particularly rich source of compositional inspiration.

Back to Sonicism. It matters not if the wave under analysis is taken from sound (energy vibrating in air) , from ocean (energy vibrating in water) from the sun (energy vibrating in the electromagnetic spectrum). If the wave can be represented mathematically, it can be engineered in any other medium.

When NASA releases ‘The Sounds of Jupiter”, we should not imagine a giant booming noise emanating across the solar system. Well, we should imagine that, because that would be cool. But what has really happened is a representation of the electromagnetic wave as a sound wave. This process, moving waves across medium, is called Transduction.

There’s a bit of coinage going on there, I use the term very loosely. A very familiar transducer is the mechanism in the human ear that takes energy waves in air and reforms them as electrical impulses in the human brain. The HiFi speaker does the same thing, taking electrical impulses from the piezo mechanism on the LP needle and groove, transferring them into vibrations on the speaker cone which then activate energy in the air.

If we were to take the direct values of the electromagnetism of the sun and represent directly as sound, it would be outside the audible spectrum. The values need to be mathematically modeled so that they appear within the desired range of the target medium. This process, we call Transposition ( a solid musical term). The maths are complex because an octave is exponential not linear: always twice the frequency. So 800 is an octave above 400 (difference of 400). 8000 is an octave above 4000 (difference of 4000).

And the octave is a relationship worth preserving in any medium.

Transduction and Transposition gives the artist a powerful set of concepts and tools.  I write ‘music’ that is ultimately intended for electromagnetic ‘performance’. It is not ‘heard’.   It is not really experienced . The musical forms exist only within the electromagnetic spectrum.  (See notes on Voices of the Noosphere, for radio telescope and didgeridoo as well as Keynote Address on Music as Cultural Dialogue, which I presented at UNESCO in 2010

What if we create waveforms that would be 'played' within the Earth, a controlled seismic event?  Or establish and control standing waves on the surface of a lake - like an enormous chinese water bowl.  Light patterns that are the direct corrollary to a piece of music - not just a laser show, but the actual transposition of sound to light?  The process is like some geomantic matrix, rich in the capability to psychogeographically manipulate the environment/noosphere. 

I imagine this is how we will identify ET culture. Their ‘instruments’ will be galactic, manipulation of gravity waves, structures of electromagnetism, formulation of time. 

Nostalgic Number

Here's a screen capture from Episode 9 of  'Cosmos".  Carl Sagan is working out how many bits of stuff there are in the universe, and needs to explain how very large numbers can be written in shorthand.  I don't remember the last time I saw 'Googol' rather than 'Google'.  


This episode kicked off with the quote "If you want to bake the perfect apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe".  A few minutes later, Sagan is lecturing in the Cavendish laboratory: 

Cavendisg sagan

What looks like a Go board to the right side of the table ends up being a representation of the periodic chart of elements.  It would have been nice if he had sat down with a couple of ghostly physicists and played a game or two.  I suppose the periodic table makes more sense, in context.

Principles of Communication with Inter-Stellar Consciousness

Principles of Communication with Inter-Stellar Consciousness 

(the following ideas are a summary of notes previously blogged)

  1.  Contact is occurring. 

  2.  We do not recognize contact either because it is so radically different from anything we have experienced before, or because it is so intrinsically familiar.
  3. Message construction is to puncture flat culture in such a way that we recognize contact.