Friday, November 15, 2013

Day 187 - SoundWaves


I have never been to the SoundWaves lecture series. As someone with an acute interest in sound and music, I have intended to experience this monthly lecture series on the science and movement of sound since I first became aware of it during my visit to the recent Wisconsin Science Festival. As a result, I kept my eyes peeled for a SoundWaves event that appealed to my interests and blended with my “I have never...” schedule. In that effort I came across an announcement about a SoundWaves event addressing the overlap of sound and color in the human senses, which piqued my curiosity and sent me rearranging my calendar to make room for the event. After some tricky reorganization, I set aside time tonight to attend my first SoundWaves event with my friend, Ross, in the hopes we would walk away with a handful of knowledge and a new perspective on the relationship between sound and color.

This should be good
When Ross and I arrived at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery presentation hall where the SoundWaves event was being held we grabbed a few drinks and found a seat near the center of the room. We chatted briefly about the concepts we hoped would be discussed and floated some philosophical questions about the interpretation of color as we waited for the event to begin. Fortunately, the conversation served as a relevant transition point as the event began.

Following an introduction from University of Wisconsin Professor of Music Daniel Grabois, a University of Wisconsin Professor of Physics, Pupa Gilbert, took the stage a dove headlong into the concepts of color perception through the human eye. Although her presentation covered some basic aspects of human vision, the bulk of her presentation focused on the transmitted wavelengths of light and how the human brain reads and interprets the barrage of color information it receives in a given scenario. By the time she concluded her portion of the SoundWaves event, I was floored by the breadth of information and the new knowledge I had gained from her brief presentation. Needless to say, the night was off to a good start.

The introduction...

Professor Gilbert's presentation

With Professor Gilbert’s presentation finished, another Professor, Rodney Schreiner from the Department of Chemistry, immediately built on the concepts of perceived color and its influences on the materials we encounter in our lives. Through a hands-on presentation involving the mixture of a variety of common household products, he demonstrated the language of color as it relates to communicating the chemical properties of a given substance. Primarily, he shown how the application of a variety of household cleaning and cooking products to liquid derived from red cabbage drastically change the purple color of the substance. In doing so, he taught the group about the basic principles of color and acidity, which can prove helpful in “listening to” a substance by sight alone. The presentation proved equally interesting as the earlier talk of perceived color, and it provided an avenue to move into the next presentation from Neuroscience Professor, Tom Yin.

Fun with chemicals!

In what I thought was the most interesting portion of the SoundWaves event, Tom Yin’s presentation focused on the human eye’s response to light and the process of light information transmission to the brain. Over the period of roughly 15 minutes, Professor Yin broke down highly complex interactions between specialized cells, the nervous system, and the brain into a simple, easy to comprehend series of information. Eventually, this information led into his discussion of variability in sight from one person to the next, which included the causes of night blindness and color blindness in humans. Additionally, Professor Yin took time to recognize advances that have permitted scientists to identify common forms of variations in cone cell concentrations from one person to the next. Continuing, Professor Yin indicated one study has shown that red/green receptors in the eye care vary from 10:1 to 1:1 among people who do not suffer from forms of color blindness, which indicates each person likely sees the same tones of color slightly different than other humans.

Brain stuff!

That tidbit of information was astounding to me given the impact it can have on the way each of us sees and interprets the world around us. To know that the blue, green, or red I see may be different than the colors seen by other people was so strange it left my mind reeling on the subject. I knew that meant I likely saw colors differently than others, but I knew I would never be able to identify or communicate those variations with other people given the near impossible task of describing the appearance of a color to another person.

Although Professor Yin suggested these differences are likely subtle from one person to the next, the idea of these variations caused me to return to some of the philosophical topics Ross and I had discussed earlier in the night. As Professor Yin completed his presentation, I turned to Ross and said, “So, if the cells in my eyes interpret color slightly different than the cells in your eyes, who’s to say the brain isn’t interpreting the transmitted signal as completely different from one person to the next?” Ross nodded his head in response recall to our earlier discussion and offered a simple reply, “I don’t know, man, but this is awesome.”

The color of sound
In obvious agreement with his remark, I turned back to the stage at the front of the room as the next presenter, Nancy Madlenoff from the Department of Art, took the stage to explain the use of color as a form of communication in art. Her presentation was relatively brief and focused on a few pieces of art from her own portfolio that demonstrated the variations in color caused by proximity, which gave way to the final presentation of the night, a discussion of the metaphor used to describe sound presented by Daniel Grabois. Also brief in his delivery, Professor Grabois talked about the nearly ubiquitous use of adjectives from other sensory experiences to describe sound. Focusing on words like high, low, bright, metallic, and dry, Professor Grabois successfully pointed out our reliance on other senses, including sight, to describe the sounds we hear in our everyday life. The point was well-received by the audience, which provided a perfect segue into the final portion of the evening, a live music performance from pianist Todd Welbourne.


With the SoundWaves event concluded, Ross and I chatted about the concepts discussed, and the information we took away from the experience. After a few minutes of discussion, Ross encouraged me to ask the presenters some of our earlier philosophical questions as they gathered to greet attendees near the front of the room. Although I was a bit hesitant, I agreed it would be a good use of time, which gave us the motivation to take to the front of the room. There, I promptly introduced myself to Professor Yin and introduced my forthcoming question with a brief recap of some of the concepts he discussed in his earlier presentation. As Professor Yin listened on, I drew into my underlying curiosity and posed a question about the interpretation of color to him. “When you see the color blue and I see the color blue, we know it is the color blue because we have been taught it is the color blue. That stated, how do we know the brain is processing the signal sent from the eyes the same? In other words, how do I know that I don’t actually see what we call blue as a shade of yellow and you don’t actually see what we call blue as a shade of green? Of course, we both know it as blue because we have been taught to call it blue, but how do we know our brain processes the information the same?”

Wrapping things up

In response, Professor Yin curled the corners of his mouth into a slight smile and nodded his head. “Ah, an interesting philosophical question,” he said, “While I will say we can be fairly confident we are generally seeing the same colors, the easy answer is ‘we don’t know.’” Continuing, Professor Yin qualified his answer with some remarks about the existing science behind sight and the interpretation of color, but he ultimately concluded that the science required to understand the brain’s interpretation of visual signals isn’t fully developed. Continuing, Dr. Yin brought his explanation to a conclusion, “As a result, we cannot yet understand exactly how a brain processes color unless variation in cell structure produces the absence of color as in color blindness.”

With an obvious look of amazement plastered across my face, I thanked Professor Yin before Ross and I made our way toward the exit. After deciding to grab a beer before we called it a night, Ross and I chatted about our experience at the SoundWaves series and about how many incredible things occur in the city around us. It was an easy conclusion to make after an event like SoundWaves, which left me with a wealth of knowledge from some of the smartest minds on the University of Wisconsin campus. To me, that’s a great way to spend a Friday evening and an even better way to tackle another day in my “I have never...” year.

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