JACKI LYDEN, host:
Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
Beneath Switzerland and France, the world's most massive physics machine is sending subatomic particles smashing into each other at velocities nearing the speed of light. Physicists working with the 17-mile-long Large Hadron Collider hope it will help solve some of the universe's mysteries.
First, though, researchers must clear two hurdles: how to handle all the data the Large Hadron Collider generates and how to get non-scientists to care.
NPR's Andrew Prince reports on the way one scientist is trying to do both those things through sound.
ANDREW PRINCE: Lily Asquith is a physicist who until recently worked at the Large Hadron Collider. She lives and breathes subatomic particles.
Dr. LILY ASQUITH (Physicist): I suppose we spend a lot of time thinking about these particles, so you do tend to personify things that you think about a lot.
PRINCE: She gives them personalities, colors and sounds.
Dr. ASQUITH: I think electrons, perhaps, sound like a glockenspiel to me.
(Soundbite of glockenspiel)
PRINCE: Lily and other researchers at the LHC were searching for the Higgs boson, the subatomic particle that scientists say gives everything in the universe mass. In the process of this search, the LHC generates just a massive amount of information, more than 40 million pieces of data every second. And that's just from one of the four main detectors in the deep underground complex.
So Lily was trying to figure out a new way to understand and sort through all this data. The LHC currently produces images as an output from the data, beautiful, colorful images, sprays of particles in different directions.
Dr. ASQUITH: And it's quite easy to step from there, really, to consider that there could be some kind of sound associated with these things.
(Soundbite of heart monitor)
PRINCE: She thought about a heart monitor in a hospital like this one, how it turns the electrical data from your heart into sound.
Dr. ASQUITH: You don't have to watch the monitor because you can hear it without making any effort. Just a steady beep. You can quite easily detect if it starts going quicker or if it stops even for a second.
PRINCE: And she wondered what it would be like to use music composition software to turn data from the collider into sound.
(Soundbite of noise)
PRINCE: She fed in a sample of the LHC data, just three columns of numbers.
Dr. ASQUITH: So we'll map, for example, the first column of numbers, which may be a distance, to time. And we may map the second column of numbers to pitch, and the third, perhaps, to volume.
PRINCE: What she got isn't quite music, something more out of this world.
(Soundbite of noise)
PRINCE: So what does it all mean? Well, right now, Lily Asquith says the sounds don't tell scientists very much. But she hopes that in the future, it could help them understand the data in new ways. She says that in certain situations, it's much easier to use your ears than your eyes, particularly with something that's changing over time.
But the project is doing something else: making what's going on at the collider accessible and interesting to people without Ph.D.s. That includes many of Lily's friends who are musicians.
They're really interested in and even fascinated by what's going on there. But she says they get a frightened look on their face when she brings up the hard science.
Dr. ASQUITH: I just think that's unnecessary that it frightens people. It should be something that everyone should enjoy.
PRINCE: Andrew Prince, NPR News, Washington.
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