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Haunting Melodies

Dr. Long, who is both a Research Fellow in Complementary Medicine at Exeter University and a practicing musician and composer (and Ross King and Colin Angus before her), have come up with a way to map the intricate whorls and swirls of these "patterns of life" into a medium that is rich enough and symbolic enough, to allow people to intuitively grasp and differentiate between the complex instructions that define how living things are put together. 

It works like this, according to the New York Times:

"Protein Music assigns the musical notes C, A, G, and E to the four base nucleotides of DNA sequences”cytosine, adenine, guanine, and thymine; the treble line on a musical staff is formed from these pairings, while the bass line is derived from matching musical notes to the 20 amino acids."

"The 20 amino acids have different physical properties, some are oily, some are small or large, some have a positive charge,  so we coded these properties as notes to represent them in a musical way," said Ross King. Is this important, or just another "neat" way to play with computers? 

I suggest that it's very important indeed -- reaching far beyond "just" helping us to grasp DNA sequences. Because as we continue to develop enormously complex data sets in many fields, our ability to understand, and to make sense of this overpopulation of data, demands innovative new ways of looking at (or listening to, or later "feeling") them.

For example, if you play several of the sample music clips, you can easily tell the difference between them. But if I showed you pages of DNA base-pairs, or the 3D models of the resulting proteins, would it be so simple? Would you be able to come back a day or a week later and quickly grasp which set of DNA maps applied to which protein? Yet you'd probably remember the appropriate tunes with little effort!

Many years ago, I was trying to demonstrate to the senior management of a computer service organization, where they would, and would not, have tools in place to address the service needs they anticipated over the next ten years. On one hand, there were 30-some categories of service functionality they wanted to offer. 

On another hand, there were various service tools they currently had in their arsenal, and others in-development, each of which addressed some elements of the different service needs.

So I took all of this data and used the first commodity spreadsheet that could generate multi-row 3D column graphs (I believe it was called Wingz), making it very easy to grasp just which capabilities would be available at any give year. Then, for good measure, I animated the graph, making it abundantly clear how the service capabilities would grow each year under the current development plan.

Then, by doing 'what if' changes to see what would happen if individual schedules were changed, and overlaying the animations, it was obvious how the changes would affect the company's future service capabilities!

By using this then-new tool, I was able to help people intuitively visualize previously incomprehensible data. And now Dr. Long and the other pioneers in this new "visualization" technique have pulled a similar rabbit of the hat for even more complex sets of data.

Which is a good thing, because we're going to need increasingly innovative techniques to enable us to grasp the ever-more complex world around us! This is also a wonderful example of what happens when you marry previously disparate areas of knowledge.  I would never have come up with Dr. Long's solution, because I have no background in music. But her "unusual" combination of backgrounds enabled her to succeed with a very "out of the box" solution that works quite well.

I suggest that this is a model for how we can best move forward. Engineers, computer scientists, doctors, and all of the other extremely important specialties, may do wonderful things within their own fields.

But I believe that it is people who have knowledge ACROSS previously stand-alone fields, who will be in the best position to "break the rules" in new and helpful ways. In fact, this might be something that "traditional" stovepiped educational programs might want to think about...

As Dr. Long demonstrates, such 'cross-border' techniques can be music to our ears...

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Dr Linda Long. You can listen to samples of her CD's Music of the Plants and Music of the Body in the Soothingminds online shop.