What Air Pollution Sounds Like In L.A.

By Sayre Quevedo

For some people, the phrase “emotional science” might call to mind the field of psychology or neuroscience. But when UC Berkeley new media professor Greg Niemeyer uses the term, it refers to presenting scientific data in a way that engages people’s feelings as much as their intellect. And sometimes the best way to get a person to feel something, is to get them to hear it.

Niemeyer is the director of the Data and Democracy Initiative, which looks to utilize technology and science to help individuals makes democratic and conscious decisions about the world around them. His latest project, in partnership with Stanford’s Chris Chafe, takes air quality measurements in and around Los Angeles, Calif. and turns them into music. It’s called Seven Airs, and it was the topic of a recent conversation we had.

Sayre Quevedo: How does Seven Airs relate to the work being done by the Data and Democracy Initiative?

Greg Niemeyer: As citizens, we have the right to breathe, but we also have the right to pollute. We need to have a lot of information about the quality of air we breathe in order to make meaningful choices about how the air quality affects our health. If we can think about different ways of looking at, understanding and learning about air quality and voicing our concerns about it, we can make better decisions about both our exposure to pollution and sources of pollution. And that will make us more free and active citizens.

In the case of Seven Airs we went to several sites in the 35th parallel [in Southern California] that are supposed to be beautiful and are supposed to be full of regenerative properties, but we found them all to be somewhat polluted. We sort of missed the pure experience of a clean land and clean air. We’re almost reflecting back on a time — a time that may have never existed, but nevertheless we imagine — when California was more pure.

What is the significance of the volatile organic compounds and carbon dioxide you measured?

When it comes to air pollution there are many factors to consider. Carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds are indicators of human industrial activity. If there’s too much CO2 in the air, we have to breathe more in order to get the air we need — it can make us sleepy. Volatile organic compounds are airborne solvents. You know how if you have a can of glue and you open the lid? There are a lot of VOCs that come out. Same is true for alcohol, same is true for perfumes or hairspray or methane. All of these can impact us as neurotoxins, they can make us dizzy or drowsy. And that is unhealthy.

Why is music the chosen medium to present this data?

In this particular project we used music because we wanted to make the experience of data suspenseful. When you look at the Seven Airs website you can see that music playing, and data scrolling, and you can see how air quality measurement data makes certain sounds happen. So you want to see what happens next. That slight element of suspense makes people look at the data more closely and they think, “That sound was interesting. I wonder what caused that spike in the air pollution?”

Are you a musician yourself?

No, I’m a new media artist. My discipline is really game design. I’m curious about how can we get people who aren’t scientists-by-training to engage in scientific thinking and how can we show that it’s fun.

My colleague Chris Chafe from Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics at Stanford, is the composer of this piece. We’ve been working together for many years with the “musification” of data.

One of your projects is called the Tomato Quintet. In that project you used the gases produced by tomatoes during ripening to create music.

Tomatoes produce certain gases such as ethylene and carbon dioxide while they ripen, while they turn from green to red. The redder they get the more CO2 and ethylene they produce, and we can measure that and turn it into music.

And what did that sound like? I noticed that the pollution music had sort of an eerie tone.

The tomatoes produced a kind of salsa music. It was very rhythmic, not quite as eerie. There were four channels of music: one was salsa music, one was a kind of crackling sound, one was the sound of wind, and one was the sound of a flute. Those four channels together created quite a musical landscape.


This post was originally published on Turnstylenews.com, where you can read and hear and extended version of this interview. Powered by award-winning journalists, Turnstyle is a project of Youth Radio. For more science coverage on Turnstyle check out:

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