You can (and should) listen to your data

I spent last week up in Lancaster for the British Crystallographic Association’s Spring Meeting, where Briony Yorke gave a fantastic talk about her research on time-resolved X-ray diffraction (very cool) and experiments in listening to her data (even cooler)…

The experiments I do using X-ray diffraction work on the principle that you can calculate the structure of a material from the patterns made by the scattered X-rays after they’ve hit a single crystal of it. Nowadays the procedure is quite routine: there are more than a million materials’ structures recorded in databases like the CSD or ICSD. But it often happens that before you find a “good” crystal to collect data from, you try several ones that aren’t quite good enough. Maybe they’re too small and the scattering is weak, maybe they have impurities, or maybe they’re made up of multiple crystalline domains that scatter in different orientations. But you only really know they’re no good after sifting through the data, which can waste precious time and effort (particularly at the synchrotron).

Briony showed us various images of her data – beautiful symmetric scattering patterns – and played the soundscapes generated from the images using computer software (she’s put some examples up to listen to on soundcloud). The first thing that struck me is how musical it sounds; the symmetry and intensity contrast in the data translate perfectly into rhythm and harmony in a way I wouldn’t have imagined. It’s beautiful art in it’s own right!

The second thing that struck me, which was pointed out by Briony herself, was that this translation of visual images into sound could be useful. Perhaps it could be a way of screening the data to identify errors or abnormalities. With practice, it might be possible to use sound more effectively than images… And it turns out that researchers have been interested in converting visual images into soundscapes for a while.

There’s a paper called “Sound Graphs, A Numerical Data Analysis Method for the Blind” published in 1985 in the Journal of Medical Systems. I don’t think I’ve come across any blind crystallographers, so I wonder if anything came of it. But I do think there could be milage in this way of representing my data, and it might open up different ways of thinking about it too…

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