We all know Earth is facing a series of environmental crises. Rising temperatures. Increased extreme storms. Species under threat. Plastic in our oceans. The list goes on and on; a tsunami of bad news that we can’t, and obviously shouldn’t, avoid. But as a society do we understand it all? Do we find it all too complicated? And do we simply choose to leave it to those who ‘do the science’?
On a daily basis, as a global community, we are told we must act. It is everybody’s responsibility and we must change our cultures and behaviours. And we need to explore every avenue available to us in order to do so. But is the science just one step too far for many?
For natural and physical scientists, it has in the past been all too easy to carry out a piece of research without looking at the bigger picture. Some academics devote years to projects or pieces of work, without fully considering how to communicate them. But we are all now being asked to look beyond traditional finish lines, and explore methods of science communication through collaboration. And rightly so.
Presenting our findings in a creative way can open them up to whole new audiences. As a result, our messages have the potential to reach far beyond academia and into the public arena where they can have the greatest impact. If we want everyone to not only understand but act, we need to cut through the noise of information overload in daily lives and capture their attention.
At the University of Plymouth, we have long appreciated the benefits of uniting experts from across the disciplines in this way. Physics and photography. Politics and poetry. Environmental science and psychology. And take us, the authors of this piece, a marine biologist and a musician/composer.
At first, building such relationships may not be easy. But taking a solutions focussed whole-system approach yields countless benefits.
Our latest project – Song of the Sea – harnesses our considerable previous experience. And the resulting piece, combining our world-leading research in countless fields, is as powerful as the initial storms that inspired it.
The extreme storms of 2013/14 left many a mark on the public consciousness. After all, who could forget the images of waves crashing above the cliffs of southern Cornwall? Or the rail line at Dawlish being torn apart and left hanging by a thread?
Look at sensor data captured at the time, and you really start to appreciate the eye-watering power of every wave in far greater detail. You see the impact of every time they crashed against beach and cliff. Of every gust of wind or deluge of rain. Transforming the data into a piece of music elevates the significance further and wider.
Historically, scientific data has normally been conveyed visually, as charts, and more recently, animations. However, the combination of sound and images provides significantly more alternatives to convey information. We have been developing methods to render scientific data into sound for over a decade. But more than that, we have pioneering the ‘musification of data’, where artists are encouraged to use data as parameters to control a musical composition.
Song of the Sea takes a popular sea shanty – What shall we do with the drunken sailor? – and manipulates it using data captured by the Southwest Regional Coastal Monitoring Programme. The result is the data is presented in a way audiences – whatever their background and wherever they are from – can clearly appreciate. And in doing so, we hope it helps people understand the devastating effects similar future storms could have. It also, importantly, prompts them to think how their actions might make a difference.
If we want our planet to survive for future generations, we need to reduce the impact humans are having. And there are many instances where all of us will need to think, and make behavioural changes.
In that context, uniting the arts and sciences makes perfect sense. After all, climate change is a common threat that doesn’t discriminate. And it is a collaboration of disciplines that we hope will achieve greater awareness and lasting benefits for centuries to come.
Richard Thompson OBE FRS, Professor of Marine Biology and Director of the University’s Marine Institute, continues to set the international agenda on research into the causes and effects of marine litter. A decade-and-a-half on from his seminal paper, which for the first time described the accumulation of ‘microplastics’ in the oceans, he has mapped out much of the territory upon which our understanding of both the impacts of plastics and the potential solutions are based.
Eduardo Miranda, Professor in Computer Music, is an unrivalled visionary who marries accomplished musical composition with advanced technological innovations to change lives. He is Head of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research (ICCMR) and has developed brain-computer music interface systems to grant those with severe motor impairments the opportunity to play music again.
The COP26 summit, held in Glasgow, Scotland from 31 October to 12 November 2021, brought parties together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on climate change.
The University of Plymouth is proud to be a part of the COP26 Universities Network whose mission it is to ensure that the UK academic sector plays its role in delivering a successful COP26, in order to deliver a zero-carbon, resilient world.