LHC physicists preserve Native American voices

Physicists are using LHC detector technology to retrieve Native American music from old recordings


This article is a stub. Read the full article over at symmetry magazine.

Berkeley physicist Carl Haber listened in astonishment as the first notes of the 1950s hit “Goodnight Irene” played through his computer.

“It was one of those moments you remember your whole life,” Haber says.

The song came from an old record, but no needle traced its grooves. Haber wasn’t listening to the record; he was listening to an image of the record, which then-postdoc Vitaliy Fadeyev had produced by scanning it with a high-powered microscope. A set of mathematical algorithms then interpreted the trenches embossed on the record’s surface and translated them into sounds.

Haber and Fadeyev were neither preservationists nor audio experts. Rather, they were, and still are, both particle physicists working on the ATLAS experiment, a cathedral-sized particle detector located on CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Haber is at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Fadeyev is now at the University of California, Santa Cruz. They specialize in designing the delicate silicon detectors that record the charge, trajectory and momentum of particles produced immediately after the high-energy proton collisions.

In order to pick out particles like the Higgs boson from the cacophony of noise created during the high-energy collisions, the LHC detectors must be extremely precise—so precise that the inner detectors can distinguish between two particles separated by the width of a human hair.

Ethnographer Frances Densmore with Blackfoot chief, Mountain Chief, during a 1916 phonograph recording session for the Bureau of American Ethnology. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

To make these detectors, physicists use optical imaging to determine the shapes of the components. Then they apply mathematical algorithms to analyze the components’ dimensions and specialized machinery to piece them together with the precision of a few micrometers.

“It is a very powerful technique,” Haber says, “and I was very interested in what other applications it could have.”

Haber got his answer in the early 2000s on one of his many trips between Berkeley, where they were assembling the ATLAS detectors, and Silicon Valley, where he was purchasing detector materials and fabricating detector components.

“I was driving and my brain was swirling with all these thoughts of imaging, analyzing and processing,” Haber says. “I was thinking about its applications, when I heard an interview on the radio with Mickey Hart.”

Mickey Hart, the legendary drummer from the Grateful Dead, is an ethnographer and a huge proponent of preserving the heritage of music. During this radio interview, Hart explained that there are thousands of old recordings cataloging the music, language and culture of at-risk indigenous communities. But these recordings, Hart explained, are stored on archaic, sometimes warped or broken material.

“And I thought,” Haber says, “if you could take a recording and turn it into a picture, then you could extract the information by using these mathematical approaches we were applying to our physics research.”

Read the rest of this article: "LHC physicists preserve Native American voices" – symmetry magazine