Alumnus Makes Sound From Molecules

Monday, February 29, 2016

A DOE CSGF alumnus is attracting attention for his research to give voices to the molecules he studies.

Asegun Henry, a fellow from 2005 to 2009, is slowing down the vibrations of atoms in molecules so they’re audible as sounds. Different elements would have distinctive acoustic signatures. Listening to the vibrations made audible could help scientists analyze molecular structure and properties.

Henry researches energy and heat transfer as an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. An article at the Gizmodo tech website describes how he and graduate student Wei Lv used this sonification technique to understand the vibration modes of polymers – long molecular chains. The polymers didn’t behave as expected in molecular dynamics simulations. One even became thermally superconductive, capable of transmitting heat with no resistance. The researchers mapped audio qualities like pitch and timbre onto the data to convert it to sound. They were able to pick up patterns that helped them understand the transition to thermal superconduction.

Henry is seeking a National Science Foundation grant to create an application that catalogs unique musical signatures for each element in the periodic table. The app would be a tool to teach the elements “but also to give people some notion about the idea that the entire universe is moving around and making noise,” Henry told Gizmodo. “You just can’t hear it.”

The Gizmodo story includes recordings of sonifications for crystalline silicon and for polymers.

Henry earned his doctorate in 2009 and master’s in 2006, both in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Florida A&M University in 2004.