Music composition and chemistry major Walker Smith, winner of the 2022 IU Jacobs OECD Innovation Competition, is creator and master of ceremonies in his one-man show, The Sound of Molecules. An innovative musical composition that turns molecular data sets into sound, Walker marries his passions for music and chemistry into a performance that is both entertaining and educational. Joining his love of teaching with his own theatrical and performative presentation style, Walker delivers an engaging educational experience, complete with fire and lasers. Even his outfits do not disappoint: a self-described ‘ridiculous rainbow suit’ and an Einstein wig.
Previously performed at the Jacobs School of Music and at the International Computer Music Conference in Ireland, The Sound of Molecules will be performed four times at WonderLab Museum in Bloomington before Walker takes a workshopped version of his show into schools around Southern Indiana.
“I’ve been interested in chemistry and music since middle school, and I’ve always wanted to connect them in some way,” says Walker. Having previously written compositions attempting to connect the two, he says he was never quite satisfied. “I’ve never thought that the connection was really great until I sort of got into electronic music and realized that the whole principle behind electronic music is literally thinking of sound as a stream of data.”
Once he discovered that electronic music was the secret to the elusive music-chemistry connection, he quickly turned to spectroscopy, which he describes as ‘the study of how molecules wiggle and vibrate.’ With data sets from the actual wiggly molecules, he could discover and listen to the kinds of harmonies that molecules and atoms create.
It took him a while to find the sounds he was looking for. “Just taking a data set and turning it into sound is often – you know, data sets are messy, so often you get a messy sound.” Using a technique called nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, the same technique used in an MRI, Walker finally found a data set that would yield really interesting sounds with little or no manipulation.
“I think the little to no manipulation is really important because it is a true recreation of the molecules,” says Walker. “You’re experiencing the true, beautiful sound– beautiful and interesting and complex sound of these molecules in an accurate way.”
Walker will be traveling to Brown County Middle School in October to host a workshop, and is planning several more school trips. He hopes to present his work to students in both science and music classrooms, inspiring kids to make connections between the two. “Hopefully the workshops will be educational in the sense of providing some concrete skills with using software and composing, but also…in connecting some ideas from the sciences to music,” says Walker. “That’s what my project is all about– using scientific data to create music and exploring the relationship between light and sound.”
These workshops tap into another passion of Walker’s– connecting with audiences sharing what he has learned. “I absolutely love teaching and that’s like the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done. A really important part of my scientific identity is communicating with people,” says Walker. “I think I found that my interest is really in communicating with the broader public and finding ways to take complex or maybe slightly inaccessible ideas and make them not only accessible but fun and engaging.”
After all of the complicated data collection and molecular wiggling, he has a simple message for his audiences: “I think the most important thing is inspiring people to be weird and do creative things and make absurd connections.”
WonderLab Museum Shows:
- September 17th, 11:00am
- September 17th, 4:00pm
- September 18th, 2:00pm
- September 18th, 4:00pm
All show are free and open to the public!
308 W 4th St
Bloomington, IN 47404