Forget Spotify Wrapped, groove to the sound of black holes colliding

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How do you express the yawning abyss of infinity that is a black hole for a person who has not immersed himself in non-Euclidean geometry with infinite dimensions, the ‘mathematical side’ of superstring theory, and the key to an integrated The century-long discovery of physics?

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If you’re Dr. Valery Vermeulen, you can call it an LP. mix in.

The Mikromedas AdS/CFT 001, now available through Ash International, is the product of over a year of production work. However, in many ways, this is an electronic music album that Vermeulen has been building since he was a teenager.


“Even at a young age, I was always interested in science and music,” Vermeulen told me when we talked a few weeks ago. “I think I started playing the piano when I was seven. I also got into physics and science. I stumbled into quantum physics around 16. We had a library and I’m a curious person. “

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That brush with quantum physics in a library began a decades-old fascination with quantum gravity, the elusive goal of physicists to bridge the gap between the two great theories of the universe: Einstein’s general relativity and quantum mechanics.

The best, and perhaps only, hope of linking these two seemingly contradictory theories together runs through the point in space where the two theories intersect behind a veil of darkness we can never look back: The Singularity at the Heart of a Black Hole.

Using streams of data from black hole mergers – simulating particle behavior at a black hole’s event horizon – and influences from jazz legends such as Oscar Peterson, Vermeulen attempts to sound out the invisible interior of the most exotic object in the known universe.

The result is the sometimes haunting, always deeply engaging seven-track album that aims to integrate science and art as much as it does relativity and quantum mechanics.

a unified theory

Dr. Vermeulen pursued two distinct tracks in his early life, studying for a Ph.D. in mathematics and performing as a street busker in Antwerp. “People sometimes ask me, ‘Are you a scientist or an artist?’, but I regard it as creativity,” Vermeulen said.

However, living two separate lives had its challenges. “It was very difficult,” he told me, “but I embrace it now. It took a long time to accept that these two sides are who I am.”

If only it were so easy to bring physics together.

In the century-plus since Albert Einstein published his theory of general relativity in 1915, its predictions have been tested and verified more times than anyone has bothered to count.

But the problems for relativity and physics generally started even before they were proposed. In 1900, Max Planck published a paper showing that light, under certain conditions, behaves as if it were matter, and not a wave of energy as physics had long determined.

Things got curious and curious for physics in the 1920s as physicists such as Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg delved deeper into the strange world of the subatomic.

Here, the particles can be in multiple places at once. They could be either a particle or a wave – but not both – and it depended on how the observer wanted to measure it.

Here, a famous cat can be both alive and dead at the same time. And the two entangled particles could appear to communicate instantaneously over vast distances, defying Einstein’s proof that the speed of light was the fastest the universe could ever hope to move forward.

In the century since the foundation of quantum mechanics, it has also been tested and verified many times. It has also been the basis for revolutionary technological innovations such as lasers and quantum computers.

Above the atomic level, Einstein’s theory of general relativity reigns supreme, but it falls apart when you cross below the atomic scale. Quantum mechanics, whose only governing law appears to be the laws of probability, comes to a sudden halt at the edge of the atom.

The edge, which is so clearly defined, is extremely difficult to bridge. The search for a single theory that can include both, a theory of everything, is one of the great scientific challenges of today. Everyone seems to agree that black holes may hold the key.

There, inside a black hole, the mass of billions of stars can occupy a point in space of infinite density, smaller than any subatomic particle. But that mass has such an incomparable gravity that light is as much a prisoner to it as a poorly falling star that has been torn apart like cosmic tissue paper.

There, relativity and quantum mechanics may unite as quantum gravity, if only we can observe it – but a black hole keeps its secrets well.

sonic the abyss

It is this attempt to demystify that hidden space that inspired Vermeulen to compose his new album.

Vermeulen earned his Ph.D. in mathematics in 2001, he helped study the “mathematical part” of superstring theory. He’s worked as a data scientist for years, but it’s his first few attempts to combine his two great passions, while simultaneously earning a master’s degree in music composition.

“There was an earlier series,” he said, “the sonorization of the journey from Earth to the center of the galaxy. I was using a lot of Sonified data streams in that first EP, but it was never released. Wanted to take a step forward.

“Then I was like waiting, maybe I can use deep mathematical structures as a basis, which brought me back to one of my dreams, quantum gravity. Could I maybe work with it and put it to music? Can I join you?”

When talking about the interior of a black hole, where quantum gravity can reside, one has to go to the math, very theoretical, post-doctoral kind. Even the album’s title, Micromedas ADS/CFT 001, takes as inspiration the wild, mind-bending idea that reality can be seen as a 3D projection of 2D reality as it is a 3D projection of reality. The field exists at an infinite distance from us. At least, that’s how Vermeulen described it to me. I do not know what it means.

However, it is an apt analogy. Using data pulled from gravitational waves produced by black hole mergers, black hole simulations, and other black hole data from universities in several countries, Vermeulen had a lot of numbers to work with, but no one can put those numbers into something like this. How does it project into the thing that you can hear?

“So the data I used is some data streams that I simulated myself, but I also got a lot of data from outside sources like universities,” he said. “I also worked with Thomas Hertog, a former colleague of Stephen Hawking, and with Thomas I worked on gravitational waves, and there’s a lot of gravitational waves on the album.”

“They’re rather boring,” he said. “You change the frequency and you get a whooping sound.”

Musically, they are not.

“The solution I found was a three-dimensional rendering of those gravitational waves,” Vermeulen said.

To do this, he had to view the data differently, not as numbers on a line graph, but almost as if it were fluid. “Gravitational waves can be expressed in three dimensions as the sum of spherical harmonics – basically they are solutions to fluid equations.

“It gave me a lot of opportunities. Then I did two-dimensional cutting of three-dimensional fluctuating structures, and those are 2D evolved shapes, and that you can sonify and print for wavetable synthesis.”

In addition to black hole mergers, Vermeulen used simulations of the behavior of mass and massless particles at the event horizons of various black holes so that you could hear something of the environment at the event horizon.

Between all these different data streams, Vermeulen was able to create a vast array of samples and instruments fed by these data streams, and from there, he could form the album’s sounding black hole.

channeling infinite

“The creative process consists of two phases,” Vermeulen explained.

“In the first step, I’ll create a complete database of sonified samples. So, for example, with 1000 different simulations, I can make 1000 different sounds. And the second thing is to build the instruments. The instruments are fed by the data.” or you can map the knobs and controls to those devices.”

Using Ableton, Vermeulen was able to weave the compositions together using a combination of scientific data and his artistic sensibility.

“It’s an aesthetic, artistic decision in the second part that I make. I use this material, and then I try to get an abstract feeling, of course it’s also about feelings, even if It’s abstract, and then I just do compositions. I create an arrangement and focus a lot on the sound design and mixing. I’ve been mixing on albums for over a year now to get everything I want I want.”

Vermeulen believes that the process of taking something mathematically impenetrable as the interior of a black hole and making it accessible to our senses is an important part of the scientific process.

“I am interested in making connections between abstract geometric, mathematical structures and sonification. Those objects are cold, dead objects. They are not active, so I try to find a way to activate them, a connection between geometry and sound. To create links. Using sonification.

“One of the things in my PhD, the geometry I was studying, was infinite dimensionality. I would love to make them tangible, to bring science closer to people, to see them. Science to see reality is just a point of view, it is not a replacement for reality.”

While we may never “look” behind the curtain of a black hole’s event horizon to discover its secrets, experiencing that mystery is important in itself. This is something that Vermeulen hopes to continue to explore in his work. You can see more of his work on his artist website or on his Instagram.

  • The elusive black hole revealed itself when it…

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