Science Avatars, Music and the Joint Review Panel 


Written for Canadian Community News by Mike Sterling

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String Avatar Results for a Single String

How can the Joint Review Panel on low and intermediate waste, music and Avatars have anything to do with each other?

Words convey information.  I've been trying to understand the language of music for the past five years.  I've had to listen to musicians carefully because they sometimes speak in a language that is unfamiliar. 

Music can be written and read.  I can study the language of music. That's the easy part to learn.  But, I continue to stumble on words that are new to me.

So, I chose to try to understand music from the standpoint of how the physics of music works and how the musical person hears  in cooperation with the words they say. Have no fear.  I can, just like you, appreciate Edif Piaf without physics.

I've been attempting to design a new musical instrument.  It is one that has never been seen or heard.  It has no relatives except a distant 2nd cousin, the Harp and its derivatives. 

I want it to have a beautiful shape and be playable by a musical person.  A playable sculpture is the goal.

One problem has surfaced.  My instrument has 36 strings.  How should I select them? 

I looked at small harps to gain some insight.  Harps have had over 3000 years of development and over that time string selection has become a copy and improve method, which has had wonderful results.  The history of how the process progressed is difficult to follow.

I found an existing example that had data associated with it.  I was interested in the string lengths, their diameter, unit weight and the tension applied to achieve the pitch.

I found detailed information.  What it told me was interesting.  The harp maker achieved what he wanted by getting close and then using manual adjustments in tension, much like a guitarist does. This is standard in stringed instruments where the player/tuner adjusts tuning machines or pins.

It was a long way from being an optimal method.  I looked at all the string specifications used in the classic design. 

Guitarists have a better selection process and a more varied choice selection. Harps clearly work because there are a number of solutions to the problem, some much better than others.  With work the designer finds these solutions, but not all of them.  What is the optimal solution?

I asked piano tuners how strings were selected.  They gave me words, but no satisfactory method.  I asked guitarists how they selected strings from the thousands of choices they have open to them.  They used terms like feel and colour to describe their choices.  These words are meaningful, but hard to quantify.

One talented friend told me that he buys a pack of six from the many selections from string makers like D'Addario.  He tosses out one string, moves another and buys one new string.  Why, I asked?  He replied  "Over time I found I like the combination and it is pleasing"  Fair enough!

So how do I select strings for this new instrument? I have no source to ask.  I don't have a life expectancy long enough to experiment.  I can't afford the journey in dollars or time.  A full size classical harp can cost $1000 to re-string.

I reverted to the physics of the vibrating string.  This was worked out in the 1800s and was partially known to many before that.  But, that's not the story I want to leave with you, the reader.

I once worked with a very talented scientist and his equally talented younger brother.  They are well known in engineering, computer science and more. 

Working on projects for over a decade with one of  them and at a laboratory at Cambridge University with the other, I found that they had fun using words to describe what they were developing. This was not unlike musical people's jargon.  These words were fun for the insider, but a mystery to others.

Words like Medusa, Perseus and Avatar became early project code names that were always changed to something more familiar to marketing people when the projects were commercialized and released to the public.  The marketing names were never interesting and usually missed the point.

Perseus and Slain Medusa's Head

The two brothers were friendly rivals.  One 'invented' a technology called Medusa.  The younger brother soon responded with a rival called Perseus (for the story of Perseus and Medusa click here)  Why the younger brother called his product Perseus is clear from the story.

One development that was interesting had the working name Avatar.  It was so named because it attempted to capture the essence of a design as a designer worked.  It would then allow future designs to be created from it by changing parameters.  Geometric parts of the design would become longer, fatter, deeper and more. 

It was interesting to me because British Cannons were designed using a form of this technology in the 1800s.  I was startled to discover this when making three cannon replicas for the Bruce County Museum and Cultural Centre.

The internal structure of the development program called Avatar was not a single design, but a morphing 'blueprint' for millions of variations of the original.  It was the beginning of a serious attack on parametric design using computers.  A whole sub-industry now exploits that feature with some success.

So, although James Cameron's movie popularized the word Avatar, it has at least two more meanings.

Click the orange arrow to read the second column

In computing Avatar means:  an icon or figure representing a particular person in computer games, Internet forums, etc.

I love the word because it has such a flair to it and depth too.  So how does it have any use in selecting strings?   Here's how.

I wrote a computer program that models what strings can do and better still what they 'like' to do.  Some strings can be tuned to a certain pitch and they hold that pitch.  Others can be coerced to a pitch, but they don't like it and are hard to tune and keep tuned.  They may sound 'dead' to musical people who use words like dark or tinny to describe a bad string.  I developed an Avatar that tells me why this is true.

I conjured up the Avatar for strings that allows me to test them before I buy them.

Big deal! Sounds like I am just modeling strings.  There are many tension calculators on the net for example.  Yes, that's true, but  it is more. 

I'm trying to create a true Avatar that is the essence of the string that I'm testing.  I could just produce guesses about tension and unit weight with a simple calculator. That would be all I would get.  I could do that quickly. That would be using a simple model. 

An Avatar is much more.  It tells secrets that just plain models don't.  It should tell me things that I could not guess.

In order to overcome my lack of knowledge I work with musical people who I respect.  I ask them questions and they respond in their language.  We iterate back and forth until I understand them and we understand each other, both linguistically and actually. 

I tried my Avatar on them after explaining what I mean by it.  I asked them to look at my results as though the Avatar was telling them some secrets.

They understand the word in my definition.  I now see that they see more than they did before. 

My Avatar is not just an icon that denotes something about tension and pitch.  It speaks for the string.  If the string vibrates, it vibrates.  If the string is 'uncomfortable' at a certain pitch, my Avatar is too.  If the string has resonance, so has the Avatar.

Does this have any meaning beyond strings?  Yes! 

As the Joint Review Panel hearings that were held on the disposal of low and intermediate nuclear waste progressed, it dawned on me that the 'anti-DGR people were at odds with the nature of the models talked about by the testifying experts. 

I could tell they understood very little, because they did not ask good questions, but used blanket words, phrases and more, hoping they would find a discordant note in expert testimony. 

Instead of asking penetrating questions about the models, they discounted them or they complained they could not be guaranteed 100%, which is true, but misses the point. 

What they should have been seeking was whether or not the model was an Avatar for the segment of the physical world that it attempted to depict.  How do the models and Avatars fit together to portray the whole?  How does safety depend upon the models and Avatars?  How does human frailty mix with this?  Can some models be transformed into Avatars?

I admit it is too much to ask everyone to dive in and dig out the details, but there are famous examples of Avatars that might help us recognize an Avatar when we see one.  They tell secrets and predict results that can be verified.

For example consider Einstein's general theory of relativity.  The mathematics are incomprehensible to most of us, but the space time nature of the universe is not. 


Space-Time Warped by Mass

Explained to High School Teachers

Think about the models that show deformation of space-time by mass as seen in the above video. Those pictures are an attempt to show the four dimensional nature of our working universe.  They along with the mathematics reveal an avatar.

Every person has seen a form of this excellent example.  General Relativity and the models that emerge from the theory are Avatars of reality.  So too are good models of many things, geology, radiation,....

Every formula and mind picture, if properly used reveals something and is the precursor for a comprehensive Avatar.

Look for them.  They predict reality.

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Sunday, March 29, 2015