How a scientist turned cosmic ray data into visual art : Short Wave Teppei Katori loves two things: particle physics and music. Naturally, he combined the two. Today on Short Wave, Teppei talks to host Regina G. Barber about how he and his collaborators convert data from cosmic rays—high energy particles from space that are constantly colliding with Earth—into beautiful sights and sounds.

A scientist and musician are collaborating to turn cosmic ray data into art

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EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE...


KWONG: ...From NPR.


Teppei Katori was always amazed by the natural world and with breaking it down. It started with objects in nature - flowers and bird watching - and an obsession with knowing their names.

TEPPEI KATORI: I love to memorize the name of the flower on the street.

BARBER: As he grew older, he started breaking down his natural world into smaller and smaller components.

KATORI: You can go all the way down to the quark and the lepton. And, yeah, I found out, wow, it's really fascinating.

BARBER: Quarks and leptons - some of these subatomic particles that combine to form everything we all - you, me, Teppei - interact with. Thus began Teppei's journey to become a particle physicist to study the world in the smallest components known to humankind. It's a journey that would eventually take him to different continents as he continued his studies.

KATORI: I came to the point like, man, like, even I know, like, all the name of the flower in Japan, maybe I can't talk people in the rest of the world because maybe there's a different name in America or, you know.

BARBER: And the United States is one of those far-flung places he went to. He got a Ph.D. in high-energy physics from Indiana University, Bloomington. Then he headed to Illinois to study neutrinos at the U.S. Department of Energy's Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab. But outside his particle physics work in the lab, Teppei ventured into the city looking for community.

KATORI: Yeah. I met a lot of people in Chicago just walking around. I was looking for something new, I guess.

BARBER: Eventually, Teppei started meeting different people - artists and musicians who lived in his neighborhood or the surrounding areas of Wicker Park. He'd see people just walking around, going to and from pubs, and he'd fall into conversation with them about their work.

KATORI: Some of them play music, just go walking in the day or at night. And, yeah, I liked it. And I met lots of people.

BARBER: People who inspired Teppei to connect with his creativity. He would become a particle physicist by day and an artist by night, playing music in a street band and creating art exhibits that connect us - macroscopic beings - to the subatomic realm. Today on the show, connection - how a particle physicist blends science and the arts to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts and to help people feel the subatomic building blocks of the universe. I'm Regina Barber, and you're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


BARBER: For Teppei, the magic of combining arts and physics came when he was a postdoc. That's when he came across Environmental Encroachment.


BARBER: They're a traveling brass street band. Teppei remembers them breaking out into loud brass numbers like the one you're hearing now. And it overwhelmed the sidewalks, poured out onto the streets and sometimes attracted throngs of followers. Teppei became obsessed.

KATORI: And I followed them. And then at some point, why don't you, you know, play music? And then I start to play music. I never played brass music before so it's from zero.

BARBER: They asked Teppei to play trombone for them, and he picked it up quickly. Then he started touring with them, playing trombone while working at Fermilab. And it was through Environmental Encroachment and the rest of the scene that he first started thinking about how he can combine his passions for physics, music and art. Teppei eventually collaborated with his art friends on some science-inspired art shows, and he says art and physics are more similar than you might think. Artists can create with no set end goal.

KATORI: It's the same with particle physics, really. With a lot of things we do, we don't really expect, like, outcome 'cause we are looking for something new, yeah? And in this sense, like, art has the same attitude, and I found it really cool.

BARBER: There was a particularly interesting data set from an underground lab where scientists are searching for invisible particles called neutrinos.

KATORI: So a neutrino is a particle, like atom, but it's subatomic. And it's not only smaller than the atom, it's the tiniest, like, most fundamental, you know, block of the particle.

BARBER: There are many different kinds of fundamental particles. Some carry a force, like photons, which carry the electromagnetic force and form visible light. Some of them carry mass, and some combine to form different components of atoms, you know, like protons and neutrons, which are made up of particles called quarks.

KATORI: So the atom is made by nucleus and electrons, and a nucleus is made by protons and neutrons, and the protons and neutrons are made by quarks, which is just two quarks - up quark and down quark. So, like, up quark and down quark and electrons can produce all the matter in the universe.


BARBER: Neutrinos are another fundamental particle, but they're much harder to find.

KATORI: There are so many neutrinos floating around, but you don't really touch or anything 'cause most of the neutrinos just pass through your body. So neutrino is famous for this feature. That means it's - barely interact and just passing through anything.

BARBER: Neutrinos have a nickname - ghost particles.

KATORI: It's like a ghost, you know? It's...

BARBER: Right.

KATORI: ...Everywhere, and you can't really interact.

BARBER: So if they barely interact with matter, if they're just running through us at all times, how do we, as humans, scientists - how do we detect them?

KATORI: You need a lot of neutrino. And there are lots of neutrinos from the sun and from the atmosphere, but the problem is, yes, to see them, you need a detector. But most of the neutrinos just penetrate and pass through without any trace. If you wait long enough, maybe some lucky one interact and then produce some other particle. Since it's rare, you need a big detector. So neutrino detector is often, like, a big, you know, volume of something, like a big water tank, things like that, to maximize the chance neutrinos interact something else. And these - the experiment looking for neutrinos coming from extragalactic object, so neutrinos coming from really, really far away and...

BARBER: Really?

KATORI: ...Really, really high energy.

BARBER: His latest project is a collaboration with a friend he met during his days in Environmental Encroachment - artist and musician Christo Squier, who's also an artist in resident at King's College London, where Teppei teaches.

KATORI: We know each other many years. We met in a music festival first time. It's also - the music festival - both his band and my band play.

BARBER: Christo and Teppei brainstormed how to use all this data from the hunt for neutrinos and the much more common cosmic rays, which are mostly high-energy protons moving really, really fast. They landed on an art installation that would translate particle physics data into sound for a concert series, something that would make the invisible - the ghostlike - feel real.

KATORI: So we have this idea to use some of the cosmic ray detector for things, but more for music direction, like - 'cause in the end, we tried to compose this cosmic-ray-inspired - neutrino-inspired music.

BARBER: They decided to use live data from the Super-K detector. It's a big detector buried 3,300 feet below a mountain in Japan - Mount Ikeno - and turn it into one big musical instrument. The Super-K has huge neutrino detection pools. And when a neutrino is found, the detector produces a little light signal. These light signals became the basis of their instrument. They divided the detector into seven parts, with each part corresponding to a note on the musical scale. Then, depending on where the light signal came from, they would produce different musical notes. Notes at the bottom of the detector were assigned a lower octave, and notes at the top were assigned to higher octave.

KATORI: So Christo was quite interested in this, like, randomness because when a neutrino comes in, the light is produced, and that is detected by each detector. But this all processes not, like, smooth, like, boop-ba-ba boop-boop-ba-ba-ba, boop-boop-boop-boop-boop, you know, like...


KATORI: ...So you can come up with some nice, you know, music and way to interpret this phenomena. So that's one type of music.

BARBER: They called this first musical attempt "Subatomic." At a concert hall on the banks of the River Alde, a group of musicians gathered to translate the Super-K's data into sound. It was a blend of improvised and composed music based on the detector's past results.


BARBER: In their next installation, they turned "Subatomic" into an interactive art installation called "Particle Shrine."


BARBER: Teppei says that he and Christo hoped the art installation would help people appreciate the presence of subatomic particles.

KATORI: 'Cause we don't see it, but it's everywhere, and it's kind of fascinating.

BARBER: In a physical space, people could experience the passing particles as light as well as sound.

KATORI: So they're light, and light change color when cosmic rays pass through. Oh, and also, the floor is a projection of neutrino data from Super-Kamiokande. And people love to sit there and just watch.

BARBER: For Teppei, this work only enhances his research in particle physics. For once, he's not focused on how or when or why these particles are passing through you. The more important thing is that you feel it.


KATORI: I don't have to explain it, but, it - you know, this space tells you there are cosmic ray passing through your body, and you can feel it.


BARBER: You want to be able to have people feel cosmic rays, not just have to be explained to them. Like, it's like in all art - right? - you want to show, not tell.

KATORI: Yeah, 'cause it's a, you know, and it's unfortunate - right? - because it's everywhere, and it's so easy for you not to know any of this, and you die, right? But once you know it, you know, the life is way more beautiful, which is exactly like physics. If you know the physics, you know the - how the things works, and the life is more beautiful. So, yeah, same thing as cosmic ray, you know, the flower on the street. You know, if you know it, it's - makes more beautiful.


BARBER: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. This was wonderful.

KATORI: Oh, thank you for having me. Yeah.

BARBER: Teppei and Christo's installation, "Particle Shrine," was originally unveiled at Science Gallery London. They have a new show coming this month at the Somerset House as part of the London Design Biennale, and they'll be in the U.K. in September as part of the Hidden Notes Festival.


BARBER: This episode was produced by Margaret Cirino and Berly McCoy, edited by our managing producer, Rebecca Ramirez, and fact-checked by Jane Gilvin. Our audio engineer was Robert Rodriguez. Beth Donovan is our senior director of programming, and Anya Grundmann is our senior vice president of programming. I'm Regina Barber. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


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