Credit: Gil Alterovitz, via Technology Review

It won’t be Lady GaGa. But maybe a little Lady GAGATCAGCTCATTCGAC…?

On Tuesday at the British Royal Society of Music, the New London Chamber Choir will publicly perform a new choral piece with the lilting but jargony name “Allele.” The genetic allusion isn’t a superficial conceit: it is genuinely genomic music. Each of the 40 members of the chorus will be singing a score based on part of his or her own DNA.

The project began with geneticist Andrew Morley and the Wellcome Trust’s “Music from the Genome” project, which had sequenced the DNA of 40 gifted singers to learn whether they had any distinctive genetic commonalities that might be indicative of musical ability. The findings of that genomic study have not yet been published. In the interim, however, Morley—who had sung with choirs in his youth, according to the BBC—decided to use the genomic sequences as the raw material for an artistic work.

He turned the data over to composer Michael Zev Gordon, who first translated the strings of nucleotides into notes, then rendered them musical through his selection and rhythmic arrangement of them. The poet Ruth Padel provided the lyrics for the singers. As Pallab Ghosh of the BBC writes:

To begin with, there is a single voice singing a simple rhythmic phrase; but as the piece develops, more voices join in – conveying the biological idea of replication and reproduction.
At its climax, each member of the choir is singing their own unique genetic code – resulting in everyone singing a subtly different song.

Morley and Gordon seem not to be the first to think of translating genome sequences into music. Indeed, some artist-scientists have attempted the maybe even more intriguing trick of turning music into DNA and inserting it into living cells.

Research fellow Gil Alterovitz at M.I.T. and Harvard Medical School has developed a computer program that translates information about cells’ gene and protein expression into musical sequences. His purpose is scientific rather than aesthetic, however. Because our brains are particularly adept at picking up patterns in the sounds we hear, Alterovitz hopes that his system could help researchers identify subtle derangements in the synchrony of gene expression that might underlie disease states.

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The scathing review of the movie Marmaduke on io9.com begins by describing it as “so self-evidently bad that slamming it would be tautological,” and then it just gets nasty. (The justification for reviewing Marmaduke on a science fiction site? “A sentient Great Dane who holds his family hostage falls well within the boundaries of speculative fiction — it’s more or less like Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and His Dog, but without the semen farming.”) But never mind that. More intriguing was the link to a page on Box Office Mojo listing the fifty “Worst Wide Openings” since 1982. Read Full Article

(If this post had a subhead, it would be: Dr. Strangehawking, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Aliens.)

The Discovery Channel’s new series Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking debuted last night with an episode about Aliens. I’ll plead guilty to not having seen it—the clips appearing on Discovery’s web site seemed full of both CGI goodness and speculation relatively unencumbered by annoying facts, so I’m not sure what to make of it. But one of the claims that Hawking apparently makes in the program has drawn considerable media attention, as in this BBC story:

Aliens almost certainly exist but humans should avoid making contact, Professor Stephen Hawking has warned.

In a series for the Discovery Channel the renowned astrophysicist said it was “perfectly rational” to assume intelligent life exists elsewhere.

But he warned that aliens might simply raid Earth for resources, then move on.

Prof Hawking thinks that, rather than actively trying to communicate with extra-terrestrials, humans should do everything possible to avoid contact.

He explained: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.”

Hawking’s concern seems to be the Independence Day scenario: that spacefaring species might roam the universe in gigantic motherships, pillaging planets for their resource wealth and exterminating those worlds’ inhabitants in the process. (So for the rumored sequel to Independence Day in the works, does this mean Hawking could take Jeff Goldblum’s role? Or Brent Spiner’s?)

Naturally, Stephen Hawking’s speculations on most matters are probably far more likely to be right than are mine, but in this case I’ll argue that he’s most probably wrong about alien conquests of this sort being a meaningful danger. First, though, I have to make two asides. Read Full Article

Photo by Patrick Powers (via Flickr)

Much to my surprise, the Walt Disney Company has released a film that is chock full of fish, not one of which talks or sings. Strictly speaking, Disneynature, an independent Disney label based in France, is the outfit responsible for Oceans, which opened in celebration of Earth Day. (Here’s the film’s official site, but warning: brace for flashy multimedia overload.) And strictly strictly speaking, this is actually the English international release of Océans, which debuted in France last year.

As you might expect, the cinematography is spectacular, especially during the film’s first hour. (It’s probably equally good during the last third, but there may be limits to just how much gorgeous underwater imagery the human brain can absorb without growing scales.) In contrast, the informational content connected to all that beauty is disappointingly low. The narrative carries viewers from ocean to ocean, pole to equator, surface to sea bottom; the individual moments seem to link together at least loosely but there’s no clear sense of a master plan or theme guiding it. Pierce Brosnan’s narration works so hard to be lyrical that all the earnestness starts to grate, and the writing lets its attitude of wonder overrun any genuine curiosity about the subject.

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Spewing Rubik's Cubes, by K. Koch. Courtesy of the Museum of Bad Art

Sure, not that anyone asked, but I’m happy to be the last person in the digiverse to voice an opinion on something that every sentient lifeform in the galaxy with a joystick and a keyboard has already exhausted: what’s all this, then, about Roger Ebert saying video games can’t be art?

After all, my perspective on this burning controversy is strikingly important because, in addition to having awful taste in art (beautiful! moving! inspiring!), I have played video games less than almost anyone in my generation who isn’t Amish. Fact! Having learned as a young man that I lacked the hand-eye coordination to master the intricacies of Pac-Man and Pong, I decided to sit out a couple of decades worth of arcade action. And because I’ve mostly owned Macs since the early 1990s, my handiest hardware was outside the gaming mainstream. And because I’m fairly sure gaming consoles crawl around your home at night and suck the dreams out of your sleeping brain, I don’t have one of those, either. I am an enormous amount of fun to be around.

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