UW-Madison limnologist Paul Hanson (standing) partnered with local musicians at Paradyme Studios to record and release an album of six science-inspired songs.
Data collected from sensors on a buoy in Lake Mendota map the ebb and flow of the algal blooms that each year turn the lake green with phytoplankton. A look at the patterns created over time shows a confluence of interconnected cycles driven by season, temperature, sunrise and sunset.
To most people, that sounds like science. A lyrical description perhaps, but well within the realm of what is observable, measurable and repeatable — the necessary conditions for a scientific experiment. But to UW-Madison researcher Paul Hanson, the data — and the forces of nature behind them — have the power to transcend his empirically driven discipline.
Hanson, a distinguished professor of research with the university’s Center for Limnology, is also a musician and a composer. For the past several years he’s been collaborating with local musician Chris Wagoner and others to write and record songs inspired by both science and nature.
“There are three Cs that connect music and science,” Hanson says. “Creativity, communication and collaboration.”
Hanson had been playing music with Wagoner for some time before they began discussing the link between their professions. But as the conversations continued, they found that science and music have a great deal in common.
“Art and science terminology is very similar,” says Wagoner, a classically trained violinist who plays in a number of local bands. “People assume music is all creativity, but there’s a lot of structure involved.”
Both science and music tell stories — they ask questions, they provide resolutions. Patterns and repetitions give emphasis and direction to the narrative. In identifying these “analogous structures,” Hanson recognized the potential to use music as a new and different way to communicate science topics.
Earlier this year, Hanson debuted his project at the Center for Limnology, bringing in a full band to stage a live performance of “Falling Creek,” a song inspired by Hanson’s research on harmful algal blooms. During the academic year, the Center for Limnology hosts weekly seminars on topics related to the study of inland lakes and rivers. Typically, it’s a standard academic lecture designed for faculty, staff and students already familiar with the discipline. So when Hanson pitched his idea, it was a significant break in format.
“It’s never been done, as far as I’m aware, having live musicians in the seminar and as part of the team,” Hanson says. “I don’t think people had any idea what to expect.”
The song, a lilting waltz reminiscent of composer Aaron Copland, has musical elements that draw from Hanson’s algal bloom research as well as nature itself. The data doesn’t translate precisely to musical notes, but the cycles of water ecology provide the framework and inspiration for the song’s melody and structure.
Delicate guitar harmonics, plucked in a pentatonic melody, are evocative of dripping water; the low, sustained drone of a cello represents the consistency of the natural world. As the free-form rubato of the melody swells, the tempo and meter represent the interconnected life cycles of the ecosystem as it moves through the seasons.
“It tells a full story, it has an end that you feel,” Hanson says. “It just feels right.”
Hanson says scientists face a “fundamental challenge” when pursuing and publishing their research — assumptions must be laid out, the data must be repeatable, and there’s a “heavy emphasis” on conciseness and efficiency in how the information is presented. Adhering to such standards is useful in academia, but it can present a barrier for nonscientific audiences.
“We’re looking at how we can do a really good job telling a science story to people who aren’t scientists,” Hanson says.
Next month, Hanson will travel to Austria to present his music at a meeting of the Global Lake Ecological Observatory Network, an international grassroots organization of limnologists. Hanson plans to continue the project during the fall semester and is looking into moving performances into a bigger venue, like the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. He also hopes to add more songs that tell a larger story and engage a broader audience.
“Art is inspired by and reflects nature,” Hanson says. “At least in the natural sciences, it’s all about trying to understand.”