Here's What the Higgs Boson Sounds Like

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The particle, set to music, plays like a jaunty tango.

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In the score of the sonification, the bump corresponding to the Higgs boson is represented by an F note two octaves above the preceding F note, a C representing the peak of the Higgs, and a E note. (Domenico Vicinanza via Discovery News)

The discovery of the Higgs boson was a singular event, but it was also the product of a long effort: the Atlas project, which used CERN's Large Hadron Collider to analyze particle acceleration. The existence of the Higgs was confirmed -- or, well, the existence of a particle that "looks for all the world" to be the Higgs was confirmed -- when groups of researchers detected a "bump" corresponding to a particle weighing 126 GeV, making it consistent with Dr. Higgs' mysterious particule.

The Higgs, in other words, was discovered due to a data anomaly. And now, that data set -- and that anomaly -- have been set to music. Or, more precisely, music has emerged from that data set and that anomaly. 

That music being, precisely, an upbeat melody that resembles the habanera, a tango-like Cuban dance. 

Yes! And: Sí! You can listen to it here:

Higgs Boson Atlas by theatlantictech

The researcher Domenico Vicinanza, product manager at DANTE and both a musician and an engineer, led the Higgs sonification project -- collaborating with Mariapaola Sorrentino of the ASTRA Project and Giuseppe La Rocca of Catania's INFN, who spearheaded the effort's computing framework. 

To arrive at their tune, the team attached a musical note to each data point from the Atlas project, mapping the intervals between values in the original data set to the intervals between notes in the melody. As the values increased or decreased, the pitch of the notes grew -- and diminished -- accordingly. 

"In this way, any regularity in the scientific data can be naturally mapped to the melody," Vicinanza told Discovery News. So if the data in question are periodic -- that is, marked by a repeated cycle -- then "the sonification will be a music melody which will have the same periodicity and regularity."

And when there was an anomaly in the set -- as in the high F depicted in the score above -- the melody reflected the interruption. That series of octave-jumping notes -- F, C, E? That's the Higgs.

Or, well: It corresponds to the Higgs. The sonification project is a creative extension of existing data, rather than new data themselves. The Atlas-gathered information makes for a lovely pattern; that pattern, however, is the result of relatively arbitrary assignations. "By using sonification we are able to make this breakthrough easier to understand by the general public," Vicinanza says. But it might be more accurate to say that sonification makes the Higgs breakthrough easier to sense. The Higgs discovery is notoriously difficult to understand in part because it is notoriously difficult to feel: We can't see it, we can't taste it, we can't smell it. This is why metaphors used to describe the particle -- from bubbles to Bieber -- are both common and not terribly helpful. Whatever was proven or almost-proven last week, the Higgs remains, for most of us, effectively theoretical. Higgs! The Musical is one way to make it slightly -- just slightly -- more real.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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