The Radioactive Orchestra

Ever heard the sound of an atom decaying? Meet the orchestra transforming ionising radiation into music.

Next month, DJ Axel Boman will release an album with an unusual breed of guest star: radioactive isotopes. With track titles such as ‘Rubidium-88 featuring Cobalt-60’, it promises to be quite unlike anything you’ve heard before.

This intriguing concept was made possible by the Radioactive Orchestra, a Swedish project which has translated the radiation emitted by thousands of isotopes into individual sequences of musical notes.

A collaboration between KTH, Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology, and KSU, the country’s nuclear safety and training institute, it presents ionising radiation from a radically new perspective.

‘We only hear about ionising radiation when there’s an accident and most people don’t really know what it is or how it works,’ says Liselotte Herlitz, head of information at KSU and one of the Orchestra’s founders. In fact, radiation has a variety of practical uses including medical imaging and cancer treatments.

In the wake of the Fukushima crisis, the Radioactive Orchestra’s tunes are an alternative means of stimulating discussion around ionising radiation and encouraging people to find out a bit more about it.

Inside an unstable atom

Simply put, ionising radiation is the particles and energy emitted by an atom’s nucleus during a process called radioactive decay. Atoms of the same element can come in different forms, known as isotopes. Some isotopes are unstable, often because they have an odd mix of particles in the nucleus – there may be too many protons or neutrons.

If this is the case, the unstable nucleus will try to regain stability by ejecting particles or energy. This form of radiation is called ionising radiation as it can knock electrons off other atoms in its path, meaning it can (although not always) be harmful to living things.

bananaUnstable isotopes exist naturally all around us: the Sun, rocks, the atmosphere, and living things including the human body all emit ionising radiation (see this infographic for more examples of sources).

Whilst high levels of ionising radiation are harmful, our bodies are built to cope with naturally occurring background levels. So there’s no need to worry about the exposure we receive every day from things like eating a banana.

‘Radiation is part of nature’, says Dr Torbjörn Bäck, assistant professor of nuclear physics at KTH. When evaluating the potential dangers of radiation from external sources, it’s therefore important to compare these levels with the natural background radiation.

Our fears about ionising radiation are perhaps amplified by the fact that it can’t be seen, smelt or detected in any way by our human senses. This is exactly what the Radioactive Orchestra hopes to change.

From radiation to radio hits

Energy spectrumThe team behind the Radioactive Orchestra converted the signature pattern of radiation released by each of a few thousand unstable isotopes into sound. The energy of the radiation determines the frequency of the notes: high energy radiation will create a high-pitched note, and vice versa.

The result is an ethereal series of notes corresponding to each isotope’s unique radiation fingerprint. Some produce abstract, disjointed beeps whilst others weave more intricate harmonies. To the casual listener it may just sound pretty, but the nuclear physicists who helped with the project can perceive much more.

The radiation given off by atoms delivers vital clues to the inner workings of the nucleus, and studying this radiation is therefore a fundamental aspect of nuclear physics research. Physicists usually ‘see’ radiation as graphs known as energy spectra, so hearing isotopes is a whole new experience for them too.

‘You can really hear what’s happening to the nucleus, and that’s fascinating to me,’ explains Bäck.

The Radioactive Orchestra explores more than just physics, involving musicians Axel Boman and Kristofer Hagbard. ‘It’s a lot of fun for us but it’s interesting research on the artistic side too – what can you make music out of?’, says Bäck.

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You can have a go at composing your own radioactive tunes on the Radioactive Orchestra homepage.

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