MIT Students Use Nuclear Energy to Make Music

Three MIT students have developed a new technique that enables them to make musical compositions from particle energy. Helen Chang Liu, Nick Lopez, and Keldin Sergheyev joined forces in their Introduction to Composition class when they were given an assignment to create something that shows their growing understanding of sound. While other classmates chose to make instruments like homemade flutes, chimes, and drums, this trio sought to “make musical textures from nuclear radiation.”

“The nuclear part was easy. The music part was the challenge,” said Segheyev, who admitted that he did not know much about Western musical notation prior to the Composition course.

Most of his knowledge about sound came from Waves and Vibrations, a physics course required for all students majoring in nuclear engineering at MIT. He and Lopez were enrolled in both classes when they discovered a way to generate musical sound using gamma radiation from a nuclear reactor.

“With that influencing us, we realized that these detectors are outputting signals based on the energy of the incoming particle,” said Lopez. Along with Liu, who had experience performing in various musical ensembles, the group began noting the energy detected and turning it into numerical data.

Using software developed by nuclear engineering graduate student Zach Hartwig, who served as a mentor on the project, they were able to map the pulses of light to a frequency. When they exposed the detector to different elements, such as Cobalt-60, Cesium-137, and even items like pottery and cigarettes, it created different sounds.

Though the project was very artistic, the students have already suggested a practical application for their findings. “We were in the nuclear lab, where they do a lot of radiation testing, and while we were there, one of the detectors started going off,” said Liu. “We were just like, ‘What is that? What does that mean?’ and we had to figure out what the machine was trying to say to us.”

They proposed that if a detector were able to generate unique sounds in response to different stimuli, researchers working in nuclear labs could immediately determine the urgency of the situation upon hearing a specific alarm. You can listen to the six tracks they created on SoundCloud.