By Morgan McFall-Johnsen and Amanda Hermans
A few years ago, Dr. Scott St. George was frustrated. An assistant professor of geography, environment and society at the University of Minnesota, St. George was tired of showing powerpoints full of graphs and data to his environmental science classes. He felt that it was difficult to reach his students that way, to allow them to really absorb information about climate change. Searching for a more interesting way to present data to his students, he began to think about sonification, converting data into sound. His first attempt, through a math student with a MATLAB program, was chaotic and unappealing to listen to.
Then Daniel Crawford, at the time an undergraduate freshman who plays cello, started working in St. George’s tree ring laboratory. Together, he and St. George turned climate change data into music. In 2014, they produced a video of a string quartet from the University of Minnesota performing Crawford’s musical rendition of climate data. The video circulated the web and the world, appearing in the New York Times, NPR and Smithsonian magazine, among others.
Tuesday night, the Buffett Institute brought Crawford and St. George to Northwestern to talk about their work, with a string quartet of Northwestern students performing Crawford’s climate data piece. After the performance, Crawford and St. George sat on a panel with Brad Sageman, co-director of ISEN, and Miranda Cawley, a Northwestern student and environmental journalist who played the cello in the performance.
Crawford and St. George hope that the musical sonification of data will communicate information on a more personal, emotional level than raw data.
“Sometimes there’s a lot of value in doing things differently than people might expect,” St. George said. “If the Buffett Center held an event with two guys pointing at a graph, no one would come.”
To kick off the event, St. George pointed at graphs. “Climate is a very visual field,” he said, flipping through a slideshow and talking about the history of graphs and the different types of graphs, the functions they serve and their importance to science and the communication of information. But, “a lot of people will look at something like that and not really feel an emotional spark,” he said. Crawford’s music is meant to create that spark.
Each member of the string quartet represented a different range of latitudes in the northern hemisphere. The cello portrayed data for the equatorial zone, the viola for the mid latitudes, the second violin for the high latitudes and the first violin for the arctic. Lower notes represented cold temperatures and higher notes represented high temperatures.
The piece, “Planetary Bands, Warming World,” portrays NASA’s annual global temperature data. It starts in the 1880s and progresses through each decade until the present. This performance featured a crucial difference from Crawford’s original piece: there was a new note at the end. During the string quartet’s rehearsal just three hours before, Crawford added the new data for 2015.
A screen displayed each decade as the quartet played it, showing a quote from each decade to demonstrate the slow realization of the realities of climate change. In the 1920s, the violins start to get noticeably higher. By the end of the performance, the screech of the first violin is almost unbearable.
Cawley, the cellist, said this medium of data representation can be especially effective for people who accept the existence of climate change but don’t have enough of an emotional connection to it.
“I think music connects us to the environment and is one of the few things that can produce the same experience with the sublime that being in nature can,” she said. “A piece like this might create a new emotional framework for them to process it.”
Crawford and St. George aren’t the only ones experimenting with the communication of science through art. A few years ago, Sageman said he sat on the panel for a dance troupe performance that told the story of climate change and its deniers. Cawley has made documentaries telling stories about people facing the impacts of climate change.
“Any numbers can be music,” Crawford said. He and St. George hope that musical sonification will reach new people who aren’t responsive to traditional scientific communication.
“I think one of the strengths of this very simple thing we’ve done is that if you don’t like it, that’s ok,” St. George said. “All the information that we used to create this sonification is available online. We would be really happy if somebody got really annoyed by what we did and decided to make something better.”