If A Lake Could Sing, What Would It Sound Like? This Scientist Found The Answer In Big Data
At the Archbold Biological Station, near what was once a vast, arid dune stretching across Central Florida inhabited by lumbering mammoths and saber-toothed cats, one of the deepest lakes in the southeastern U.S. has fascinated scientists for decades. More than 30,000 years worth of history are buried in a murky bottom that has remained remarkably free of the pollution fouling the state's more shallow waters.
Evelyn Gaiser calls it “the holy grail for the field I study.”
But a few years ago Gaiser, an aquatic biologist at Florida International University just appointed to the state's blue green algae task force, discovered Lake Annie had something else to offer: a song.
Gaiser has been studying the temperature, light, oxygen and other data collected from the lake over the years, looking for patterns about climate and changes in the lake. Those patterns, she said, can offer insight into Florida’s worsening water problems and shed light on what could occur as the planet heats up and harmful algae blooms, which regularly choke the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers, grow worse.
As she poured over the data at her house on a Saturday afternoon, she suddenly thought: these charts look like sheet music.
“I was looking at a lot of data, a lot of data points plotted on graphs,” said Gaiser, a musician who has sang in the chorus of the Miami Lyric Opera. “And when I saw tons of data points plotted on lots and lots of graphs, to me, it just looked like music.”
So she started playing around on her piano. She assigned the median temperature on the charts to a Middle C, then plotted the notes, following the rise and fall of the seasons. What emerged was a melancholy piece called "Lake Annie's Song" that spans three years and 12 seasons, and made Gaiser part of a growing cadre of data composers.
A Visceral Response
“You can actually potentially manipulate the interpretation or the listener’s mood as they listen to the piece, which is kind of counter to the data science objective,” said Brian Foo, a computer scientist and data visualization artist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
As monitoring systems, computer capacity and advances in technology evolve to produce more information and expand the trough of big data, he said scientists have discovered that music can offer a more compelling way to interpret vast amounts of information. It can also connect the data that scientists find intriguing - but the public less so - with a world fighting information overload.
“It has the power to convey emotion, or trigger emotion,” Foo said. “You don’t really get a visceral response from a chart."
Foo, who describes himself as a Data DJ, has composed 10 pieces as part of a data music project. The pieces are based on a variety of data, including stats that reflect minority representation in movies and air quality in Beijing. He used census information to depict New York’s income gap in a piece inspired by Steve Reich that follows the city’s Two Train. In richer neighborhoods, the music is dense. In poorer, it flattens. For another, he sampled the Rebirth Brass Band to show land loss along the Louisiana coast.
“It’s very powerful as both an artist, but also somebody who’s trying to communicate particular issues,” he said.
'Man, When Am I Going To Get To Do A Project Like That?'
Among aquatic ecologists like Gaiser, Lake Annie is legendary for the breadth of the information it holds. It's also a rare body of water in Florida that it has mostly escaped the pollution spreading across state.
Gaiser had heard about the lake even before she arrived in Florida in the late 1990s to work at FIU studying the Everglades. She was among the early scientists examining the decades of flood control and pollution that were killing the southern marshes. She now oversees a longterm Everglades research project that involves more than 100 scientists and staff. But she was also interested in the state's maze of lakes - there are more than 7,700 - and in particular the sinkhole lake near Lake Wales amid ancient dunes that stretch 150 miles.
“The Everglades is one kind of ecosystem in Florida,” she said. “But as soon as we get into the Lake Wales ridge, the deep sands and these wonderful limestone sinkhole lakes are just all over the landscape, and they’re really different and they’re deep and they’re beautiful.”
Her fascination with lakes started as a kid. Every summer, her family - grandparents, aunts and uncles - camped in tents along the shores of Lake Huron for weeks at a time. Eventually they built cabins, but Gaiser best remembers roughing it in tents.
“We kind of lived like the Swiss Family Robinson,” she said. “My sister and I were always swimming and fishing and playing in the water. It was just a huge part of my life.”
Like Lake Huron, Lake Annie dates back to the ice age. Archbold purchased it in 1983 partly to protect the vast record that sits in 36 feet of sediment resting on the bottom. Gaiser started taking her students there in 2001 so they could see what pristine conditions look like at the top of the Everglades watershed.
At the time, not many scientists were paying attention to the lake, she said. But staff researchers had been diligently collecting data.
One staffer in particular, Nancy Deyrup, had unfailingly collected samples using the same protocol a graduate student had given her 20 years earlier, Gaiser said.
“She wrote down all these wonderful observations of what she saw in the lake every time she went out,” she said. “So they accumulated this beautiful data set that’s now more than 35 years old.”
For researchers, long-term data compiled by biological stations underpin much of what they do. Without it, they have no way of measuring change. It also formed the basis of Gaiser’s musical composition.
As she plotted the notes and played the piece, Gaiser said she could sense the changes the lake was undergoing more acutely than examining the charts.
“I could hear the warm times and the cold times,” she said. “When I played the notes representing the surface of the lake compared to the very cold water at the bottom of the lake, I could hear those differences.”
To perfect the piece - Gaiser eventually gave a TED Talk in 2016 about using music to convey data - she enlisted FIU’s music faculty. Composer Marcus Norris, a grad student at the time getting his masters and now completing his doctorate at UCLA, got the job of arranging it.
“I thought, man, when am I going to get to do a project like that? It sounded really fun,” he said.
Norris composed the piece for a violin, viola and cello, using bowings like sul ponticello and sul tasto to add expression.
“I tried to make it into something that’s expressive and help bring out the story or song that was already in there,” he said. “There’s data over years and there’s growth and there’s development. You move with it and I wanted the audience to move into change with it, with your emotions and what you’re feeling, the same way the lake did.”
For Gaiser, the moment of truth came when a trio of FIU students performed "Lake Annie’s Song" during the 2016 Ted Talk (minute 14:05 in the video above).
“They all said to me that they couldn’t believe that they were playing a lake,” she said. “It enabled them to experience the lake that much more deeply.”
After pouring over charts and graphs for so many years, Gaiser also felt like she'd given the lake a voice.
“It was a really magical moment,” she said. “It was definitely goosebumps for me.”