Kronos Quartet Brings Sun Rings to Dallas

Kronos Quartet played at McFarlin Auditorium in Dallas last week. I managed to get some pretty good seats for the performance and took Susan along. We’d previously seen Kronos play live in Austin with the Philip Glass ensemble a few years ago. This time they were accompanied by the Women’s Chorus of Dallas and the Turtle Creek Chorale. They performed a 2002 piece called Sun Rings which was composed for them by Terry Riley. The work included a visual component designed by Willie Williams. The piece was commissioned by an unusual patron – NASA.

I had no idea NASA had an art program. Apparently their goal is to create works of art that will inspire future genreations of engineers and scientists. In this case, Terry Riley composed the music around sounds recorded by the plasma wave sensors on Voyager, Cassini, and other NASA space probes. Scientist Don Gurnett who has been working with plasma wave sensors for over 40 years, selected his favorite sounds and provided them to Riley.

The work combined the live music of the string quartet and vocals with a synthetic soundtrack composed by Riley from the the plasma wave sounds. On top of this, each performer had a control stalk with a proximity sensor at the tip attached to their music stand. By waving their hand over it, they could trigger additional plasma wave samples randomly from preselected batches that matched the movement of the piece. This causes each performance to have a unique sound while still retaining a conventional musical structure.

During the performance, there are also background visuals that alternate between color washes and a series of graphics based on the Voyager probe’s golden record operating instructions which explain to aliens how to decode and play the record carried on the probe. The instructions start with a diagram illustrating the states of a hydrogen atom, and proceed from there to the construction of a record player, reproducing the sound, decoding the embedded video waveforms, and reconstructing the video images. (no doubt an achievement that would land some lucky alien a story in their equivalent of Make magazine). The performers are also surrounded by a large number of light tipped rods which vary in color and intensity during the performance, at times giving the impression that the performers are floating in the void of space and at other times are reminiscent of candles.

We both enjoyed the music and found the performance as a whole more than interesting enough to fill the hour and half length. As an added bonus, the member of Kronos hung around for a little Q and A event after the show. Surprisingly only about a dozen members of the audience stayed to ask questions and listen to stories.

The Columbia is Lost

Yesterday morning, just after I woke up, I heard a loud rumbling outside. I assumed this was just a plane coming into DFW airport. The weather occasionally causes them to take a flight path right over our house that can be fairly loud. About half an hour later, I turned on the television and saw the first video of Columbia breaking up. I immediately went outside but it was far too late to see anything. The news commentators kept repeating over and over that the shuttle carried the first Israeli astronaut, implying some connection to Islamic terrorists but I seriously doubt there are many weapons that could track and hit a vehicle at 200,000 feet travelling at 12,000 mph.

I couldn’t help recalling memories of the Challenger from 1986. I had been driving home from classes at UTA when I heard the news on the radio that Challenger exploded shortly after take off. I kept thinking that it couldn’t possibly be correct – the reporters must be making some sort of mistake. By the time I got home and saw the video of the explosion I realized it was true. But yesterday, I knew instantly what had happened. Without the sound turned on, just looking at the words “breaking news”, “Columbia” and the contrail breaking up, I knew.

The worst part back in 1986 was that I was young enough that I still believed there was some chance I’d get off this rock in my lifetime. When the Challenger accident occurred, I lost that hope and knew it wouldn’t happen. We’d be stuck here on Earth for my lifetime. Within days of the accident luddites everywhere were trotting out the same tired, irrational arguments against space travel and science in general; “Space travel is too dangerous for humans”, “The space program is a waste of money”, “Man shouldn’t travel to other worlds until he can sort out the mess he’s made of this one”… I’ve seen several of those pop up again in less than 24 hours after Columbia’s demise.

Watching the contrail on CNN, I also thought back to July of 1999 when Susan and I stood in our front yard and watched Columbia cross the night sky over Texas, leaving a golden, sparkling trail of ionized plasma. I wonder how long it will be before we see a shuttle re-entry again?

The DPRG mailing list was buzzing with activity about the Columbia all day yesterday. DPRG members are located all over Texas (and beyond). They always managed to come up with stuff you don’t see on the news. Eric Yundt noticed that the shuttle debris trail was visible on a National Weather Service weather radar near the Texas Louisiana border and began archiving the images. Ed Okerson assembled the images into an animation that shows the debris trail expanding and descending across the state.

Animation by Ed Okerson using National Weather Service radar data

A later message from David Anderson, a geologist, indicated the SMU infrasound station in Lajitas had recorded the sound waves generated by the shuttle’s breakup. Rather than a normal N wave, the recorded pressures waves were like nothing the geologists had ever recorded before. David said it looked more like the sounds from a ripple fired mining explosion. David has put up a web page with images of the sound waves that were recorded. (he contacted NASA as well, since his data covers a time period after NASA lost telemetry data).

One last thought is what Richard P. Feynman said in his controversial appendix to the Challenger report, “The shuttle flies in a relatively unsafe condition, with a chance of failure on the order of a percent (1 in 100)”. If you ever get the chance, read “What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character” which has the full account of his investigation of the Challenger disaster.

Music and Pneumatic Launch Vehicles

I think I’ve finally got the last of the zlib double-free fixes installed on all our Linux and Solaris boxes here. I had much more fun last night. Susan and I went to the Clandestine performance at Poor David’s Pub. They sounded great as always.

Today’s mail included another issue of .NET magazine. Yick. Why do they keep sending this Microsoft crap to me? Oh well, it went straight into the recycle bin (and I quickly washed my hands after touching the evil document)! :-)

Meanwhile, our fight against spam moves ever onward. Even though we’re rejecting over 500 spams a day, the number ending up in my mailbox continues to grow (40 per day the last few days). Processing the spam (IPs to ORDB, cc to uce@ftc.gov, nastygrams to senders) sucks up about half an hour of my time each day. I’m working on filter for my mail client that will forward the remaining spams to a Perl script so I can automate this as well.

One last thing. I ran across a really cool technical report in the January issue of NASA Tech Briefs (also available online if you don’t mind the free registration). A NASA researcher looking for alternative launch technologies ran across some information on the old pneumatic subway train that was proposed for New York in 1870 by Alfred Ely Beach. After researching the concept a bit, he’s proposing building a pneumatic launch system that would consist of a 6km tube with a 9m diameter. It would take 4 hours to charge the tube to a pressure of 200 kPa after which it could accelerate a 700,000kg reusable launch vehicle to 270 m/sec (the speed needed to fire up the SCRAM engines on the launch vehicle). Similar lauch systems have been proposed before using mag-lev technology but this thing could be built for a fraction of the cost using off-the-shelf hardware. Pretty neat.