Students create music from nature data

In this August 2015 photo, a cow moose eats water shield, an aquatic plant, from an inland lake at Isle Royale National Park. Moose are well adapted to the cold, but not the heat; they will commonly seek out lakes to stay cool when summer temperatures rise. (AP photo)

HOUGHTON — You may know that up on Isle Royale, in the middle of Lake Superior, a group of scientists has studied the wolves, the moose and the climate for the last 58 years.

But did you know you can now dance to their findings?

That’s a gross oversimplification, and an insult, likely, to the students who labored over a project that was just recently uploaded to the internet. But you can judge for yourself.

“This is an experience that really can’t be had unless you take a breath and put the headset on,” said John Vucetich, a Michigan Technological University professor.

This project, which took months to produce, is now available online at www.isleroyalewolf.org/sonification . It’s an internet version of an art project by students at Michigan Tech.

This 2015 photo shows John Vucetich, an ecologist at Michigan Technological University and leader of the Wolves & Moose of Isle Royale research project, inspecting one of many moose skulls that have been collected on Isle Royale National Park. The bones are stored in a warehouse in the Upper Peninsula. The Wolves & Moose of Isle Royale research project is the longest continuous study of any predator-prey system in the world. (AP photo)

Back in 2014, those students decided to turn data into music. They thought local data would resonate, and they turned to one of the best-known, long-standing collections of data in the area.

That would be the information gathered for the Isle Royale Wolf-Moose Project, which today is managed by Vucetich.

Vucetich and people before him since 1958 have studied the predator-prey relationship on the remote island between the animals, the way climate affects things and the rise and fall of the populations. Along the way, they’ve meticulously logged data.

The students — Paul Kirby, Thomas Conran, Collin Doerr-Newton, and Mason Pew — decided their project could be another way for people to learn about the work on the island.

This has precedent. The students found inspiration in the work of a man named John Luther Adams, a Pulitzer Prize-winning artist who has created similar music from nature data.

The Detroit Free Press reports the students began transforming the data from the three topics — wolves, moose and climate — into musical notes. To understand this more fully, you really should listen. But, for example, you can hear the changing weather patterns, from rain to the howling winds. You can hear the rise of the wolf population and their sudden decline. The soaring highs and the bottomed-out lows of the moose. You can manipulate slider bars to adjust volumes to isolate each set of data, or listen to all three together like a symphony.

When it was completed in 2014, the student project appeared as a walk-up art installation in an on-campus gallery. Its life there served its purpose, but was brief.

Someone decided the project deserved to be experienced more widely, and a plan was born to put it on the Web. Another student, Matt Vaught, helped transform it for the internet.

The finished project, which went live in November, presents three side-scrolling blocks of black and orange colors, a real mess at first glance. But once you read the history and the purpose, and play around with the sounds, it all starts to make sense.

Vucetich said the music is another way to experience science. He compared it to getting lost in the dapples of light in a Monet painting.

“They are many ways to understand the world,” Vucetich said. “Science is only one of them.”

He didn’t know about the project until it was finished.

“It was a huge surprise,” he said. “Among the things that surprised me in some ways was the depth of their insight.”

He pointed in particular to how the students captured one of the findings of the wolf-moose study — that the wolves over time grew increasingly inbred. As time passes, that fact is represented in the music as reverberations.

“Isn’t that a really creative way to kind of capture that?”

Christopher Plummer, a Michigan Tech professor of sound design who consulted with the students, said they are all musicians fascinated with technology.

“As humans we seek patterns. And scientists have done a lot in terms of how we can visualize patterns. . How can we hear data? And does that take us in a different direction?” Plummer asked. “We’re sort of exploring that territory, what does it mean to think sort of technically through sound, which is so often such a raw, emotional medium?”

Kirby, one of the student designers who graduated and is now a web developer in Chicago, said he and his friends just wanted to draw new people into the discussion about the wolves and moose on the island.

“The primary goal was to get people interacting with the data in a way they hadn’t before,” Kirby said. “Our big goal was to kind of throw you into an emotional space with this data.”